The Lacuna

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

The-LacunaThe Lacuna covers about 30 years of American and Mexican history through the life of Harrison Sheperd, a half-Mexican, half-American boy raised in Mexico who becomes an author. This is his life story, told through his journals, covering his time as a cook in the household of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, the Bonus Army riots, Leon Trotsky’s exile in Mexico, the war effort in Ashville, NC, and finally the McCarthy trials. Sometimes Shepherd’s life seems like a way to string together these interesting moments in history, but for the most part he and the other non-historical characters are compelling enough to drive the narrative on their own. Kingsolver wears her politics on her sleeve, as always. She presents Trotsky’s death as a tragedy, and suggests communism might have worked out if he’d been in charge of the USSR instead of Stalin. Everyone now agrees that the McCarthy trials were ridiculously unjust, so they are perhaps an easy target for liberal outrage. But the protagonist’s reflective voice softens any agenda the author may have had and provides an ample spoonful of sugar to accompany the political message, which I agreed with for the most part anyway. It’s a long book, but engrossing. Kingsolver read the audiobook herself and did an impressive job with the various accents, Spanish and Appalachian.

Internet Roundup: Education, part 5

Here’s another set of links to recent articles and blogs on education. The theme this time seems to be the way we treat teachers, and the ideas of accountability and respect.

The New York Times recently had an opinion feature on “What Makes a Good Teacher,” which was really a way to discuss teacher quality and how to improve it. Most of the debate gets bogged down in the question that I told Lamar Alexander was exactly the wrong one to ask: how do we get rid of bad teachers? The one voice in this conversation worth listening to was Mercedes Schneider, the only classroom teacher participating in the debate, who said teachers need respect, autonomy, small classes, planning time, and freedom from punitive evaluation systems based on student test scores. Schnieder has a great blog as well, which I’ve added to the blogroll.

This blog contrasts the idea of accountability with a teacher’s daily interactions with students. It should already be clear to everyone that teachers can’t be responsible for a majority of the factors that influence student learning, but this vivid illustration makes that clear.

Recently, there has been a little bit of talk about holding states and school districts accountable for inputs, in addition to, or hopefully instead of, holding teachers accountable for outcomes. This means that governments and local education authorities are responsible for providing teachers with adequate resources and making sure that children have health care, nutrition, and safe homes, as these are prerequisites to learning. If we’re going to focus on “accountability,” it’s only fair to apply it across the board, rather than to focus only on teachers, who have little influence compared to home environments. I hope that this idea gains momentum and that people start to see how unreasonable and unfair the current use of “accountability” rhetoric is to teachers.

Thomas Weber of Dad Gone Wild has a great essay that uses a common sense metaphor comparing teachers to parents. He does a great job pointing out the reformers’ fallacy that teachers’ and students’ interests are opposed. In reality, just as parents fight for their children’s best interests, teachers always have students’ best interests at heart, even when they advocate for policies that appear to primarily benefit themselves. Just as a mom who’s not getting any sleep can’t do her best for her kids, a teacher who’s paid so poorly she needs a second job can’t teach to the best of her ability. Children benefit when the adults in charge of them feel secure and supported. And when teachers aren’t constantly afraid of losing their jobs and have the resources they need to do their best work, they improve continuously and stay in the profession longer, so that students benefit from their growing expertise. It’s easy to imagine a virtuous cycle of healthy classroom relationships, where now we have a vicious cycle of tense, exhausting relationships destabilized by outside influences (high stakes testing and poverty). I’m glad Thomas is continuing to write and speak out about these things. His perspective as a parent makes him extra credible when he speaks in support of teachers, and I thank him for that.

Yes Please

Yes Please by Amy Poehler

2D274905957270-YesPlease.blocks_desktop_mediumAmy Poehler is responsible for my favorite sitcom of all time, Parks and Recreation, which sadly came to an end last month. Most of the book consists of stories about Poehler’s time doing improv in Chicago, backstage at SNL, and clean gossip about costars. It’s wry and fun to read, and occasionally thought-provoking. Her essay on apologies, and how she waited too long to give one for an offensive SNL sketch, was easy to relate to. I also liked the one about how she kept her cool when nominated for awards by planning elaborate pranks with co-nominees. She articulates her really smart and well-adjusted way of dealing with the ups and downs of showbiz (but really any career as well): “You have to care about your work but not the result. You have to care about how good you are and how good you feel, but not about how good people think you are or how good people think you look.” I closed the book feeling a little wiser.

Poehler’s feminist cred is well-established, from her character Leslie Knope to her organization Smart Girls at the Party, and I was glad to see her fly that flag in her book. My favorite essay in the book might be “Every Mom Needs a Wife,” which is Poehler’s response to the mommy wars, and to the microaggression “I don’t know how you do it.” Her point is basically twofold: 1) To each her own, and 2) we all need help and support. Amen.

One of the delightful things about this book is that it is so excellent in both print and audio format that I’m not sure which to recommend. The book has nice thick, smooth pages with lots of vintage pictures of young Amy, collages from her improv days, pics of present-day Poehler in clownish dress-ups, as well as report cards, margin notes, full-page color quotes and other text features. The audio has Amy’s excellent comic delivery, audio clips from Parks and Recreation, as well as guest appearances from Seth Meyers, Parks and Recreation creator Mike Schur, and her parents. Both text and audio are excellent examples of their genres, so choose your preferred content delivery method.

I hate to compare a bunch of smart, funny ladies when I think they’re all awesome, but of Tina Fey, Mindy Kaling, Lena Dunham, and Amy Poehler, Poehler has written the best memoir, and that’s really saying something. I can’t wait to see what she does next, on screen and off.


Rooms by Lauren Oliver

13579626I’ve enjoyed Lauren Oliver’s YA novels, Before I Fall, Panic, and the Delirium trilogy. This is her first adult novel, and it’s at least as good as her YA work. It’s about a haunted house, told partly from the perspectives of its two ghosts. The way the ghosts’ experience is described is interesting and original: it’s as if the house has become their body, so that leaky pipes feel like wetting their pants, etc. The book is also about the dysfunctional family that lives in the house, and the way they’re reacting to the death of the father. My favorite character was probably Trenton, a suicidally depressed teenager who’s nevertheless pretty endearing. A couple of the characters are pretty dark and edgy, like promiscuous Minna and Sandra, the ghost. There are a few mysteries, like the ghosts’ backstories, and I liked the way they were wrapped up in the end: fitting, without being overly neat and tidy.

When I met Oliver at the Southern Festival of Books, she talked about how the structure of this novel made it challenging to write. The book is organized by the rooms of the house, so that the action of the novel moves from room to room and doesn’t return to rooms that have already been visited. When I read it, this organization seemed much less obtrusive and convoluted than I thought it would be. Oliver was able to make it seem natural and logical, which impressed me. I’m definitely going to be following her and picking up her next book, Vanishing Girls, out tomorrow!

Little Failure

Little Failure: A Memoir by Gary Shteyngart


I saw Shteyngart read part of his memoir at the Southern Festival of Books so I thought I’d like it. It’s the story of his family and their emigration to the US from Soviet Russia, even going back a couple generations to tell about his relatives who were killed in WWII, either in death camps or defending St Petersburg. Shteyngart and his parents came to New York in the 70’s when Carter made his “grain for Jews” deal. The narrative explores his experience of profound culture shock, a circumcision at age 10, his constantly fighting parents, and a couple exploitative early mentors. There’s a lot about his awkward adolescence at Stuyvesant and Oberlin, his early romantic history, and the beginning of his writing career. The prose is humorous and self-deprecating; it’s fun to read. He makes a point of saying he’s never experienced writer’s block, which makes me hate him a little.

When Shteyngart was talking about the book here in Nashville, he said he had realized in his 3 novels that he’s been writing about himself, so he wanted to exorcise all of that by writing this memoir and getting it out of his system. I’ve only read one of his novels, but I can see why he’d say that. There is something appealing about Shteyngart’s signature pathetic, wimpy protagonist, but I can see why he’d feel he needs to move on from him.

Shades of Earth

Shades of Earth by Beth Revis

10345937This book concludes the great Across the Universe series. At the beginning of the novel, Elder and Amy crash-land on the planet that they have traveled lightyears to colonize. While they and their people explore the planet, they’re being killed off in mysterious ways, one by one. There are conflicts between Elder and Amy’s dad, a military commander who has assumed leadership of the Earth-born passengers who were cryogenically frozen. Revis proves that she has the guts to write horrific violence and kill characters and imagine some real human evil. The love story is one of the trilogy’s strengths. I like to see teenage characters who get to have sex without horrible consequences that just turn the story into a morality play, and this qualifies.

Like the other books, the plot depended a bit too heavily on events progressing extremely quickly, and people trusting the wrong people, foolishly withholding information from the right people, and failing to demand to be told everything. I kind of expected part of the ending, but there were definitely surprises. A couple of those surprises seemed a bit far-fetched (which may or may not be fair to say about science fiction) but still, it was a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy. At the very end Amy really comes into her own and becomes a true leader and a real bad ass, growing through grief and making a change that I love to see a female protagonist make. Now where is the cable series based on these books? I want it in production last year so I can watch it tomorrow.

Adding to the Blogroll

I’m cleaning up and adding to my blogroll on the side menu (way down to the side of the home page). I’ve deleted a few sites that are no longer being updated. Now you’ll see several new links on education and parenting. (That’s my whole life lately, isn’t it? Education and parenting. Not a bad thing.)

Jillian Kuhlman

Jillian’s an old friend from grad school. I read her first novel this past year and thought it was great. I used to have her old blog up here, but now I have her professional author page.

Put a Bib on It

Jillian sometimes writes for this parenting blog maintained by an organization called 4C for Children, which aims to support parents and caregivers in the Cincinnati area and advocate for early childhood education. Lots of wise words on babies and littles.

Liberating Working Moms

This site is all about supporting moms who work outside the home. I had a couple things published on this blog last year, so it really belongs on my list of permanent links.

Longest Shortest Time

This is a podcast and blog that has created one of the most vibrant, nonjudgmental and funniest community of parents I’ve ever seen on the internet. And since parents are known for being pretty judgmental and humorless, especially on the internet, that’s saying something. The title comes from the idea that early parenthood seems like it lasts forever, but then it’s over really quickly.

Since becoming involved in the Tennessee Bad Ass Teachers organization, I’ve been learning a lot and have discovered a few bloggers who are saying the things that need to be said and asking the right questions. These are a few of the voices on education that I’m following.


Peter Greene is always spot on with his critiques and rants about testing, teacher evaluation, charter schools, and other stupid policies legislators come up with that  He posts frequently and covers education debates all over the nation.

Diane Ravitch

I’ve said before she’s my favorite education guru. Her blog is really a wealth of information and a great way to keep up to date about nationwide policy debates.

Dad Gone Wild

I met Thomas Weber through the Bad Ass Teachers group, and his blog is focused on Nashville’s particular education issues. He takes a philosophical perspective and has lots of insights on parenting as well.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson


Before picking up this book, I knew Shirley Jackson best from her sick and twisted short story “The Lottery.” This book is similar to that story in that it’s short, its language is very carefully chosen, and its plot is fueled by a scapegoat mentality and mob violence. The narrator is Mary Catherine Blackwood, youngest surviving daughter of a rich family that was devastated by a mass poisoning. Her psychology is rife with magical thinking and OCD tendencies: she keeps burying objects for protection or some other made-up reason. The town sees her, her older sister, and disabled uncle as pariahs, and people are often cruel to them. The plot ramps up when a cousin shows up to disrupt their routines. It’s a very voice-driven novel, and Mary Catherine is a very intense character. It’s a kind of creepy book, with some fairy tale elements. Highly recommended.