Anton DiSclafani

Anton DiSclafani has written two novels so far. Both books have first person narrators who are rich and privileged white girls in the South in the mid-Twentieth century. The decadent settings are thoroughly described by characters who clearly love their homes, and whose strong ties to place anchor them.

 

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls

The action of this novel begins when Thea Atwell arrives at the Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, an elite, old-fashioned boarding school in the mountains of North Carolina, in 1930. She has been banished from her family for a mysterious offense. She genuinely loves horses and is an excellent rider; many scenes are devoted to her adventures on horseback. It’s a coming-of-age story, but much of the plot is about her ill-advised love affairs. Thea is not always admirable; she’s selfish and very immature, a child using her new sexuality as a toy to manipulate others, more out of ignorance and boredom than malice. She is driven to explore the power she discovers she has over men, as well as wracked with homesickness for Florida and guilt for her sins.

The After Party

Cece is 25 in 1957 Houston, a socialite and young mother. Her best friend Joan is wild and beautiful and secretive. She disappeared for a year when the girls were 18, and the secret of that time is a question Cece has been wondering about ever since. It’s a rare book about female friendship, its complications, enduring power, and the pain of its loss.

DiSclafani’s handling of the secret at the center of this book is somewhat more deft than in her first novel, and the plot depends less on her protagonist’s immaturity and rash decisions (partly because Cece is significantly older than Thea). I think it’s my favorite of the two.

Feel-Bad Education

Feel-Bad Education And Other Contrarian Essays on Children and Schooling by Alfie Kohn

Kohn takes self-evident facts of human psychology and applies them to education, pointing out how conventional schooling goes against obvious principles like “Students are more likely to learn what they find interesting.” I appreciated how he defines progressive education and explains why it’s so rare; this concept is something you often hear about in education circles, but one that I have never personally seen in practice. Some people might find Kohn kind of extreme: not only does he oppose standardized testing of any kind, he’s even against all forms of number and letter grades. But even though he argues for ideas that most would consider radical, he always traces them back to principles that most people would agree with, and thoroughly and persuasively explains his position. His work is very well-researched and based on evidence, as well as on his progressive views on the purpose of education.

 

The Teacher Wars

The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession by Dana Goldstein

Often, in debating education issues, people talk about getting things back to the way they were in some golden age. But a careful look at the history shows that there were problems of some kind at every point in the past; there was no golden age, no perfect time that we need to return to. If anything, a broader perspective shows how much better things are now than even in the recent past. Still, it’s useful to know how we got where we are, especially when the mud starts slinging.

Goldstein goes back to the beginning of American education to illuminate how the teaching profession has changed over the years. I particularly appreciated learning about how teaching became a female-dominated profession: women teachers were pitched as a chance to save money on salaries. The missionary zeal of these pioneering young women is compared aptly to that of college graduates who join Teach For America today. I was fascinated by the stories of school integration and teachers’ strikes.

It becomes clear in this longer view that there is no one party or group that has always had the moral high ground in debates on education. At various times and places teachers’ unions have fought for both what I would consider ‘the good side’ and ‘the bad side,’ while concepts like local control have been used for good and for evil–to resist both charter schools and racial integration, for example.

I agreed with the majority of Goldstein’s concluding recommendations, especially improving teacher pay, using tests appropriately, and giving teachers time to collaborate and observe each other. I am more sanguine about teachers’ unions than she is, but that’s probably because I have had a positive personal experience with mine, while she has reported and written about cases where unions were in the wrong. Even so, a sympathetic, well-researched book like this can only improve teachers’ working conditions and professional standing, so even though she argues for ending “outdated” union protections, it’s a net positive for teachers.

Into the Water

Into the Water by Paula Hawkins

This engrossing thriller from the author of The Girl on the Train is about a body of water with a history of dead women. The related deaths of three women in the same “drowning pool” over thirty years are investigated, the truth finally revealed–suicide or murder? The most recent victim is Nel Abbot, a photographer who was researching the various women who died in the drowning pool over the years. Her theory was that the pool was a place for disposing of “troublesome women.” There are several narrators–Nel’s teenage daughter, her estranged sister, the detectives, the mother and brother of a recent suicide. The final twist is worth it.

Hausfrau

Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

I will remember this book for a long time. It’s a chilling tragedy about infidelity that seemed a little like an update of Anna Karenina. This Anna’s tragic flaw is passivity. The setting is Zurich, Switzerland, where Anna, an American has never felt at home. The close third person narration switched frequently between present and past, with other short scenes that made thematic statements or puns interspersed. There was a lot of wordplay, especially with Anna’s German lessons, and her appointments with a Jungian psychoanalyst. It was absolutely heartbreaking and hard to read at times. Very intense. I needed some recovery time from this one, and not just for the ending, for almost every time I had to put it down.