Tuesday, January 29, 2013

"Muck City" by Bryan Mealer

Football is not something I give much thought to beyond supporting my husband's Colts when they're playing. I didn't attend a high school or college with especially strong football teams (we did okay, but not enough to develop a cult of worship around it), nor did the high school of my last teaching assignment focus much on the sport. However, at my new school (and in the community surrounding it), football is significantly more important, and because I teach juniors, I have a number of varsity players in my classroom. I've been able to see the pressure the students put themselves under to perform, and I know that many hope to play at the college level. Since I'm always looking for books to interest my students, I picked up Muck City hoping it might appeal to my football-loving students.

Muck City is the story of the football program at Belle Glade, Florida--home of sugarcane and "muck." The city is poor, with high rates in everything: poverty, crime, gangs, AIDS infections. Yet the area also produces standout football players; the Glades Central Raiders have won six state championships and have sent thirty players to the NFL (and many more to college teams) since the mid-80s. Unlike the city of Friday Night Lights, however, the team operates with little money, no booster club, and little student fan support.

Mealer explores the 2011 season with the Raiders through the lens of Jesse Hester, the Raiders' coach, former Glades player, and the city's first NFL star. Early on, Mealer makes it clear that, for many of the players, football is their one ticket out--their path to college and beyond. However, the students' natural playing abilities are often hampered by outside forces: lack of family stability; drugs and gangs; anxiety and fear of failure. While some work hard, pushing dangerously through injury and pain to perform, others seem wary of trying and finding themselves lacking. The Raiders are a perennial powerhouse, but they're also often undisciplined and sloppy, sometimes sabotaging their own best efforts.

Though relevant to the story, I did feel the book was weighed down by play-by-play calling of the football games. I was more interested in the students' themselves. The vast focus of the book is on Hester and his players, but Mealer occasionally digresses to follow Jonteria, a female student hoping to go to medical school. Her story was interesting but felt fragmented from the rest of the book.

I'm not sure I'll try to use the book with my students. It can be somewhat confusing in the beginning, and the prose style is more advanced than I expected for a book on the subject. But, it's certainly an interesting look at a complicated story.

Monday, January 21, 2013

"The Good Girls Revolt" by Lynn Povich

Good Girls Revolt tells a story of the women's rights movement that I was unfamiliar with: the suing of Newsweek by many of its female employees in response to the newsmagazine's persistent discrimination. In particular, Newsweek hired almost no female writers and reporters, and women who were working in Newsweek were relegated to the research department and given almost no opportunity for advancement. Their lawsuit resulted in numerous meetings with management and slowly did result in increased opportunities and positions for women. In the book, Povich suggests that the Newsweek lawsuit helped instigate many others (at The New York Times, for example) and played a large role in the more equitable (though not fully so) journalism profession today.

At this point, anyone who reads my blog with any regularity must be bored of hearing me say that I'm bored with my reading. But, I am, and that extends to Good Girls Revolt, which is a well-research history (and the author, Povich, was one of the original plaintiffs) but also lacks much spark. Certainly I appreciated the look into sex discrimination in the journalism field and the way in which the women organized to bring their concerns to light. And I had no idea that Eleanor Holmes Norton, the D.C. congresswoman (whom I've met) was their first lawyer--I love the idea of the black and very pregnant Norton storming into the Newsweek editor's office. Povich also shows how, unlike some other cases, there didn't seem to be rampant retaliation for their lawsuit--instead, they found their attempts at change to be quietly stymied. The men weren't raving chauvinists, but neither were they willing to acknowledge their discriminatory attitudes and practices. Some interesting issues are raised but not discussed at length, including the black women Newsweek employees' decision not to join the lawsuit or the fact that some women were uncomfortable with the new opportunities once they were given them (showing that women's advancement needs to be legally and socially accepted in order for real progress).

In reading the "where are they now" bios at the end of the book about the original plaintiffs, I was struck by how many of the women who advanced hadn't married or had children. Without widely available childcare and without changes in the way we view mother and fatherhood, it's still significantly more difficult for women to advance in high-profile careers.

Monday, January 14, 2013

"Astray" by Emma Donoghue

Donoghue's Room is one of the few books I've read where I immediately finished and emailed my mom and sister, saying they needed to read the novel. Unfortunately, they didn't enjoy it as much as I did, but that didn't diminish my enthusiasm for Room's inventive conceit and narrative.

Even though Astray is a collection of short stories, in many ways it's a far more conventional novel than Room. The stories take place in America and Europe, primarily in the 19th and 20th century. Each story is based on some real snippet of an event or person in history. I typically complain about short stories collections with no theme, but, surprisingly, even though most of Astray's stories were previously published, they are all unified by characters gone "astray" or adrift in some manner.

Nonetheless, I just couldn't work up any enthusiasm for the stories. Some held mild interest, but few created much tension or characterization. And though typically I appreciate quiet inner characterization, the characters' feelings and responses were far too expected, even cliche.

Donoghue ends each story with a brief explanation of her source material. I thought I'd like the historical background, but somehow it cheapened the stories a bit for me. Same goes for the afterword, in which Donoghue explains the connecting threads between each story. It just felt like a creative writing class portfolio--I don't want the meaning explained to me!

So, a disappointment, especially next to Room.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

"The Age of Miracles" by Karen Thompson Walker

At the heart of The Age of Miracles is a coming-of-age story so often told that it frequently veers into the cliche: Julia is an 11-year-old girl, shy and naive, without friends; she secretly crushes on neighbor boy Seth; she doesn't know how to respond to the tensions in her parents' marriage; she often feels lost and confused, wanting more but unwilling or unable to make it happen. As a story, it just doesn't interest me. But, what saves Julia's story and Age of Miracles is the backdrop against which Julia's maturation occurs: an apocalyptic future in which the earth's rotation begins to slow and the days lengthen.

So though I truthfully didn't care much about Julia's long-simmering crush or her terror at not having a bra, I thought the exploration of the slow cataclysm that might result (I don't know how good Walker's research was, but I'm hoping it wasn't all made up) by something straightforward like the slow of the earth's spin was fascinating. Walker explores the scientific concerns, like the inability to grow crops during prolonged periods of darkness (or sunlight), but she also explores the psychological and social impact such a change might cause. Early in the crisis, most governments of the world choose to remain on "clock time," observing 24-hour days regardless of the light or dark outside. Early on, this means people experience noon-level brightness at 2am or 2am-darkness in the middle of the afternoon; later on, it means days of sunlight or darkness in a row. But certain groups of people choose to remain in "real time," observing the traditional cycle of wakeful activity during light and sleep during dark--regardless of the length of the day. Inevitably there's backlash against the real-timers, as fear and paranoia continue to fester. I also appreciated the way in which Walker shows that life will continue--how can it not?--even in a period of disaster. People adjust and will try to retain normalcy at all costs.

While I found the apocalypse and its effects fascinating, as I said, the characters were less so. Julia is personality-less, and though she does eventually develop a relationship with Seth, it's through his action, not her own, and it's difficult to see how she grows or changes in the novel. As one might expect, her mother withers and frets; her father becomes stoic and distant; there was little new explored in their relationship or in their relationships with Julia.

The entire novel has a somber and melancholy tone, its wistfulness only increased by the narration of a Julia-in-the-future, who's able to insert ominous comments like "It was the last grape I would ever taste" every few pages. The mood was so enveloping that when I would stop reading, I'd sit, feeling reflective and gloomy at the state of our world before remembering that my world is not suffering an environmental apocalypse (at least not of this nature). I suppose credit goes to Walker for her success at creating that atmosphere, though the overwhelming dreariness might turn off some readers.

The Age of Miracles is eerily similar to Life As We Knew It, a YA novel about a teenage girl living through a realistic apocalypse much like this one (in hers, the moon movers closer to earth). Although there are many plot similarities, and though I had issues with the characterization of Julia, Walker's novel is still a much better book, far more interesting and thought-provoking that the trite and fake Life As We Knew It. For its take on an apocalypse alone, I'd recommend it.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

"The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking" by Oliver Burkeman

In The Antidote, Burkeman attempts to provide a counterpoint to the ubiquitous positive-thinking messages we hear, from The Secret to corporate goal setting. He argues that our attempts to find happiness by thinking positively, concentrating on success, eliminating doubt, and setting specific goals actually make us more unhappy. As some one whose response to "positive thinking" is typically eye-rolling, I was excited to read the book, hoping to find useful tidbits that would help me utilize my more cynical view of life to my advantage. And while there are a few points in the book I found interesting, I was also disappointed by the vague and philosophy-heavy descriptions of alternatives to positive thinking Burkeman presents, from Buddhist meditation to Stoicism.

The book isn't intended as a step-by-step "improve your life" guide like many of the positive-thinking tomes, which I appreciated. But I suppose the downside is that the book also doesn't provide much for people who want to use a more negative approach to grab a hold of. Some of its generalities, though, were interesting. For example, Burkeman argues that rather than set goals, people should take stock of what they have, and begin working from there. Or, the best way to avoid procrastination is not to try to "feel like" doing something--just do it regardless. And for all those irritations in life, Burkeman suggests that we view it not in terms of something being done to us (that kid over there is annoying me) but in terms of how we respond (I'm annoyed because I believe he is annoying). Some of the other ideas I was more familiar with from my psychologist husband, such as imagining worst-case scenarios or separating your sense of self from your feelings, and others from my work as an educator (e.g., the importance of having an incremental mindset about intelligence and ability rather than an innate).

There are certainly things that will stay with me: when I next hear about how Bob Smith became a millionaire because he was perseverant, I'll remember survivor bias--and note that we've ignored all those people who were perseverant and failed. But, as a whole, the book was too focused on philosophy and on quoting various philosophers and not focused enough on practical matters for it to be much use to me.