The Kreutzer Sonata – 4/5 Stars
This is a strange murder story by Leo Tolstoy in which we find a man who murdered his wife for having an affair (having caught her in the act) and then in acquitted. I am not spoiling this story for you at all because all of this is told to you in the first few pages. But what comes out of this telling is more about the nature of his crime and how he found himself in the position to commit it, and what his mindstate is at the time. Like a lot of novels and writing in the late 1800s and beyond (and especially in the 20th century) this is a book about divorce and marriage. If in Edith Wharton, we often get divorces creating scandal, or in other stories opening up possibilities, this is less about the nature of divorce (as Tolstoy already spent a lot of time exploring in Anna Karenina, obviously) and more about the nature of marriage. The narrator in this story holds the opinion that like 95% of the world is totally set up to enjoy and flourish under marriage; this is obviously not accurate, but it fuels his obsession with his own his failures. So in forcing him to get married or in setting up society in such a way that marriage is the only legitimate way for him to function in society, it makes him out to be like a caged animal, thus failing him, and certainly in this case, failing his wife.
The Beggar – 3/5 Stars
Another story about marriage! In this short novel, we find a man who is looking to understand the nature of his modern ailment, loneliness, sadness, and emptiness. And so, in spite of his marriage, he finds himself wallowing in loveless affair after loveless affair, looking for a sense of meaning and purpose to his life.
Ultimately, this all works it’s way back to that classic question: Is life is for living, what’s living for? (Yes, I am quoting the Kinks here). And the answer, as we all know, is who knows? So you gotta to figure something out. Like a lot of novels in this little minidrama, the failure of masculinity is not so much not having the answers to these questions, but in providing false answers that satisfy only temporarily or partially and in failing to equip those of us in search of answers something more meaningful. And like in a lot of these types of novels, there’s a lot of false answers, instead of real ones. Novels have that weird way of affirming your own sense of the world a lot of times, or in cases like here, would affirm my sense of the world if I hadn’t mostly lucked out and had my brain sort of fix itself (or rather, I got some living under my belt that allowed me to better try out some of the trappings of a life better lived). In some ways, this book is a more depressing and cynical version of something like The Moviegoer, and more akin to books like Nausea or The Stranger.
Deed of Trust – No Rating
This is a short play that I got from Hoopla and I don’t know the publication or production history of it. The version I heard stars Tyne Daly and Sharon Gless around 2000 as sisters living in small town America in the 1930s. We begin the play with their brother, estranged from the family, fashioning himself a casket in his garage. As we learn about the family more we find out that one sister is married to a sentimental drunk and has a teenage daughter. They own a store and there’s a neighbor boy who likes the daughter, and whose dad is the drinking buddy of the dad. And so the setup here feels like we’re getting a set of repeated events (as in events that this family has lived through multiple times over the years, and we’re just in one episode of that life). Through the play there’s a lot of layering the past onto the present in the actions and limitations of the characters, and of course, we find out why the brother is estranged from the family, the traumas and betrayals that led him there, and where the future seems to take us. Ultimately it’s a perfectly fine play and would be interesting to watch. The acting is good, and the writing is adequate to the task, if it’s all a little sentimental and melodramatic.
Dear Elizabeth – No Rating
This is a short play that I got from Hoopla, and this audiobook version stars Mary Beth Hurt as Elizabeth Bishop and Julian Sands as Robert Lowell. This is a really well wrought and structured play that is mostly a word for word transcription of the two poets’ letters back and forth over the years. The letters indicate that were some unreturned feelings from this friendship and at least one ill-advised move to turn this into a romance, but more than anything, this was a mutually adoring friendship from two people who cared about each other deeply and were invested in each others lives. I don’t know much about Robert Lowell as a person and about the same as a poet, aside from his early marriage to Jean Stafford. This play begins as that marriage has collapsed. He meets Bishop in the way that people who run in similar circles meet, and she is 37 (he is 30) and a well-established writer at this point of their lives. They discuss life, language, people, their lives, poetry, and most funny literary retreats like Yadoo. This is a time-capsule kind of play capturing the middle 60 years of the 20th century in a way that novels and short stories dominated, while poetry continued to recede.
Heir to the Empire – 3/5 Stars
I’ve been wondering for awhile when I was going to pick up this audiobook edition of this Star Wars novel. It was published in 1991 and is probably responsible along with LucasArts Games for reviving a lot about the series. I probably read it a few years later, and I remember being told about it and getting very excited to find it. I would end up reading this series and at least 7 more novels I can recall off hand. I will likely not reread all of those, but I do plan to continue this series and then a few more. The story structure, the characters, the plotting, and the writing are all perfectly solid here. I hear that some of the other novels do NOT hold up, but I think this one does. So the story here is five years after the fall of the Emperor and the Second Death Star at Endor. Luke is a Jedi Knight, and so is Leia. Han and Leia are married, and Leia is pregnant with force-attuned twins. On the far reaches of the galaxy, a Grand Admiral (Thrawn) is gathering forces for a resurgence. A tactical genius, Thrawn was a regional power in the Empire when the Emperor fell, and because of his non-human status (his race as far as the book really gets into it is “blue”). With a force about equal to the newly growing Republic and some ideas for how to counter the force-using Jedi, Thrawn plans to rebuild and reassert his power.
So the audiobook is really good. Several of the voices are done by either the original actors like C3p0 and Ackbar or the this guy is just that good. His Han is hilariously uncanny, but far from perfect. In addition, there’s light touches of music and sound effects to really bring it all home.
The Thief and the Dogs – 3/5 Stars
The second book from the collection of Mahfouz books that I read from. Each of these books were written and published after the vaunted Cairo Trilogy, which I have only read the first of. Those books all total about 1200 pages and so that project is obviously a large one. The books of Mahfouz I’ve read have all been short. It’s an interesting contrast. This book involves a thief who is let out of prison in the post-revolution Egypt. He’s bitter as hell about his imprisonment. It’s akin to someone getting arrested for stealing while a corrupt government is lawless flouting all convention. So maybe like protesters in the US facing ridiculously inflated charges for protesting police brutality. Regardless, he spends the whole of the novel trying to figure out his place in a new society, and ultimately failing, and in the throes of all this also trying to exercise whatever levels of vengeance and retribution he feels necessary to rectify his imprisonment. It’s an angry and trauma-filled novel a lot like much noir writing of decades previous.
Autumn Quall – 3/5 Stars
Quite similar in its own ways to the two other novels in the collection, this one is much more muted and subtle than the previous ones. A civil servant faces down his past as a new regime takes over his previous government.
The Round and Other Cold Hard Facts – 1/5 Stars
This is an embarrassingly bad collection of short stories by the recent Nobel prize winner. I’ve heard he was one of his biggest advocates and lobbied heavily to win the award. I dunno if this is true or not, but this is a weirdly self-congratulatory story collection about the “lower classes” in the French Riviera (JMG Le Clezio is at least from Nice, so that tracks), but it feels so inauthentic and forced that it’s bad. Read the title of the collection as it’s been translated into English and that’s the tone and level of cringe happening throughout this whole collection.
Fire Down Below – 4/5 Stars
The third and final novel of the William Golding “Ends of the Earth” trilogy. The first volume won him the Booker Prize, and the second and third help to secure his Nobel Prize. Like the other two novels this one is a quality novel (they are actually connected in a series, so you have to read them all). Each novel is about the breakdown of social order upon a ship and how fragile that order is maintained. In this one, we find the trip to Australia finally closing in on its final destination so there’s a bit of a reckoning as that is happening. Oddly, I read this one at the beach and that added a weird little layer to it all.
The Long Valley – 4/5 Stars
This is perhaps the only John Steinbeck short fiction collection, or at least the only one I know about, and it was published just before The Grapes of Wrath. For reference, though it was published previously, The Red Pony appears in this collection. The stories all take place in the Salinas valley in California, mostly in the years concurrent with John Steinbeck’s early life and adolescence. Many of the characters are farmers or kids, or migrant workers, as happens in much of the early John Steinbeck writing. I have mentioned before that I was poisoned against John Steinbeck unfairly when I was younger, and I think he’s about as solid and competent a writer as America produced. He splits the difference almost perfectly between Faulkner and Hemingway, while addressing about the same ideas of a mix of them would produce. There’s an absolutely chilling story from an insider’s perspective of a lynching that is awful to read about, and in general each story (including one about a “virgin” pig who is canonized) is quite good. But they do range from good to great with The Red Pony being an obvious standout as a fantastic novella.
Cult X – 2/5 Stars
A not very good novel that has a very solid understanding of the psychology of conservative/right-wing politics. This is a novel about the police and others infiltrating a kind of sex cult/guru cult that might also be a terrorist cell, if police surveillance bears out. The cult stuff is bad, and there’s a lot of embarrassing and not very interesting sex writing that mars this book throughout. The interesting parts come from the “writings” of the guru, who’s story as a former WWII soldier who is captured and brought into a cult is really good and should have just been the whole novel. Otherwise the novel reads a lot like Murakami’s The Wind Up Bird Chronicle with its reflections and reckoning with Japan’s imperial past, but with a bad sex cult main plot foisted on it. Almost as soon as I started this novel I wanted it to be over with.
Being the Change – 3/5 Stars
I read this as part of a book study program for professional development. It’s a well-intentioned tool that does not entirely understand or address its limits, and so the application is based in some realities that may or not fit a given teaching context.
Here’s my analysis:
Quotations (I listened to the audiobook so I did my best to transcribe them, and I don’t have page
1) “In this book, we’ll work together to address these moments during, after, and most
importantly before they arrive. Not with silence or glossing over or punishment. Instead, we will
give ourselves permission to create learning conditions for kids to ask the questions they want to
ask, and muddle through tough conversations. We will be proactive in this pursuit. Truthfully,
we will not have all the answers, so we will do the best with what we do have, and work to be
This initial quotation spells out part of the ethos of the book, to look for ways to create safe
learning spaces for students to engage in the act of thinking, processing, and understanding,
while also making mistakes, figuring things out, and rethinking as needed. In addition, this kind
of space is important for teachers to have the same kinds of environments in their classrooms and
workspaces. I’ve worked in these kinds of spaces, where the acts of teaching and planning are
treated like laboratories where experimentation is not only possible but encouraged. My
experience with Chesterfield so far has definitely been this kind of space. I’ve also worked in a
different kind of space, one in which perennial low test scores and accreditation uncertainty adds
stress and pressure to our job, where experimentation is not encouraged. So obviously, I prefer
the former example. A third kind of space I can envision also exists, and while I don’t think
Chesterfield is likely to go to this kind of space, I do think it’s always possible. This is where the
classroom gets highly politicized, where speech is specifically limited (and not out of the good
sense or discretion that we normally employ). I hate to engage in this kind of paranoid thinking
but given the state of the political world right now, it feels like the margin for error has tightened
and given Chesterfield as a relatively politically diverse (purple district and all) that means that
the margin has quite possibly tightened from both sides.
2) “Try seeing and then describing your students only using nouns and verbs.”
In another PD response, I mentioned the use of nouns and verbs in language precision as being
tantamount to great writing. What I meant by that was when students are searching for words to
convey specific meaning, there’s a tendency to use adjectives and adverbs to describe things.
And while, yes, that the job of those kinds of words, too often this is a sacrifice in precision, and
worse, a missed opportunity for a better, clearer word. So for example, muttering, mumbling, and
whispering all have somewhat similar meanings, but each conveys a widely different kind of
speaking and a whole host of different connotations. But if a student said that someone “said
something quietly”, while accurate, this would be an imprecise way of hearing that talking. So
when Ahmed talks about seeing our students in the same way, I think there’s a similar vibe to it.
Her point seems to be suggesting that using nouns (especially when the student can supply those
nouns) is a way of capturing the wide array of things that are true about a certain student without
creating limitations. So if I described a student as a runner, this is a specific word that allows a
near infinite array of possibilities that the student can help fill out. This would be in opposition to
labeling a student as say “happy”. Not only does this give the false impression of specificity, it’s
also limiting. Lots of people are happy, except when they’re not. A word like happy is limiting
because it’s a temporary state.
3) “Social comprehension strives for awareness and understanding not consensus or compliance,
so there may be points on which people will never agree. Rather than letting discomfort over
disagreement lead us to defensiveness or arguing our position over someone else’s we can
acknowledge the awkwardness and look for ways to move ahead productively.”
This quotation and the next one both end up putting me on the defensive a little, or rather,
presents a greater challenge than I think Ahmed intends. I guess I have to allow that she’s
arguing for ideal situations, when we might have to give over to pragmatism. I think that she’s
ultimately correct about looking for ways to investigate and interrogate our discomfort over
certain issues and conflicts as they arise. In terms of teaching, lesson-planning, and work-focused
situations, I agree. But I think the issue I have with parts of this book is that the work of figuring
out how to adapt these ideas to your given work situation is left to the individuals in those
situations. I think the teaching contexts around this country are so different and diverse, that even
breathing some of the ideas in this book would get someone put on leave in certain districts
while getting someone else kudos in a different district. So I think some of the navigation of
these ideas could have used some ways to adapt for different contexts.
That said! I really do think that looking for ways for students to discuss their ideas in non-debate
formats or for debate to be less about who is better at arguing and more about the exploring of
ideas is a really beneficial lesson. I keep talking about polarization but that’s because so many
topics that used to not be up for debate now are. But also, things that should still be up for debate
are no longer, and these are not always settled in the ways many people seem to think. A college
professor described the idea of “controversial” as something two reasonable people could
disagree with, and I think we’ve lost some of that sense in the current climate. Not to mention
that someone’s ability to debate something doesn’t really have that much bearing on the
truth/nontruth of an idea.
4) “An important thing to remember is that we are not shaming anyone for their bias. This should
not be a gotcha exercise or a guilt-inducing topic but rather something to be identified and
This is a space where I did get a little defensive. In this section she’s talking about the “draw a
scientist” lesson, and what was likely designed to generate conversation about an idea, at least in
the example she provides, shuts down conversation. In the example, she asks her class to draw a
scientist, and she asks a boy who has drawn his scientist as a man, why he did, and he stated
“Because most scientists are men.” Immediately another student says “What about Marie
Curie?” and the teacher explains about bias. Except, most scientists are men, at about a 3:1 ratio,
and highlighting an example the most famous woman scientist of all time doesn’t change that
fact. I am not sure the boy was displaying a bias, so much as highlighting the discrepancy in
STEM. And I think this moment probably needed more unpacking than she gives it in that
moment. She then later changes what the student said, and regardless she inconsistently
presented the boy’s comment in one moment or the next. So my point: here’s the author of the
book telling us not to do a thing that she then provides an example of her doing (accidentally, but
still), and I had to think about how this kind of thing can happen even when we’re not meaning
to. This was a strange moment in the book in part (and I know I am nitpicking a little), because
in service of one idea she’s promoting, I feel like she undercuts a lot about the other ideas of
looking for ways to support students as they work to understand the world. Also, if I had been
that boy at 7 or whatever, I would have been furious.
5) “Currently there is little room for asking questions if you are the student. Students are in the
business of answering adult-engineered questions. Rarely are they doing the asking or working
through how to craft questions they want answers to, especially as they climb the grades.”
I think finding ways for students to create their own questions about a given topic (and then seek
to answer them or share them with others) is about the most core thing I do as a teacher. I will
talk about this a little more in the action plan.
It’s funny that the book is called Being the Change and a lot of my reaction to it is to carp
about specific examples and magical thinking, or at least I did in my initial reactions. The first
thing that comes to mind for me is looking for a way to adapt some of the really good ideas and
information in this text to the specific teaching context I am working with. For one, there are a
vast array of political feelings and beliefs (and ideologies) that will be present in my classroom
this fall. We are headed into a pretty bitter election season, and as much as I feel like “my
beliefs” are correct and not up for debate, they aren’t (or rather they are up for debate). So I think
there has to be a shift in how I am presenting lessons drawn from this book. The foremost topic
that struck me as not wholly tenable is about bias. I am not confident that I could frontload a
discussion about bias (as meant by the terms of “cultural bias” or “unconscious bias” here) to
have a safe conversation in my classroom. I feel like it’s too fraught and if I were to wade into it,
it could spin out of control in a number of different ways. That said, bias is an important concept
in writing (and analytical reading) that IS incredibly important to discuss. So I think I would
need to couch the conversations around bias in as apolitical examples as possible to have the
students understand the idea before they have a chance to look through their own biases. So for
example, I think about the Shirley Jackson story “Charles”. This is not a high-level text in terms
of comprehension, but I think it offers up some fun analysis for seniors because of complex ways
point-of-view functions in the text. The entire story hinges on the narrator being the “mother”
character and how her bias (even when she’s acknowledging it or discussing inconsistencies
she’s seeing) clouds her ability to process what seems pretty obvious from the start. (And yes,
exploring concepts of motherhood is political too, but is not the kind of partisan politics I am
being conscientious about). Another way I think looking at bias could be really interesting is to
still focus on the processes of bias, but to remove some of the content from it. Having students
look at a list or a variety of “cognitive biases” to track ones they know can be true about
themselves and their thinking. For my purposes, cognitive biases are like logical fallacies except
the error is in the thinking, rather than the arguing. Even having students engage in something as
silly-seeming as “personality” tests, or and I have no idea why students love this so much, read
about the Mandela Effect, allows for some of these same discussions. My point is that I think
that Ahmed’s political beliefs (and this includes ones I agree with) seep into some of the ways
she talks about bias and the like.
Questions! I took it to heart to find ways to allow students to ask their own questions. I
am not sure yet about my plan, so to speak, but one idea I had while listening here is to teach
students more about asking and creating questions. I have done this in the past, but I am thinking
through some ways to modify it, but all the lessons and all the work I’ve ever had to do to learn
about how to write effective test questions or reading questions or discussion questions (for
example, how to write a QAR), students should do these things. If part of my job in creating a
QAR is looking through a text and figuring out what questions would help engage student
thinking, then perhaps having students learn about QARs and write their own questions from
texts (and then answer them or share with other students) would also do this. This is not exactly
what Ahmed is getting at in this moment, but I feel like I already try to allow for students to
generate questions as much as I can, so I am looking for more formal ways to institute this.