Letter to the Editor

Dear New York Times:

I’m dismayed by the Ethicist’s advice from January 10 regarding public schooling choices http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/10/magazine/do-we-have-to-send-our-kid-to-a-bad-public-school.html?rref=collection%2Fcolumn%2Fthe-ethicist&action=click&contentCollection=magazine&region=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=1&pgtype=collection&_r=0  in part because he accepts the assumptions that the letter writer makes in suggesting that something is “seriously wrong” with the neighborhood public school because of test scores. As a veteran public school teacher, I know that standardized test scores are only one measure of a school’s quality, and a questionable measure at that. Since the letter writer says the school seems “perfectly fine,” the Ethicist should at least be encouraging more questions: Are the teachers kind, caring, and empathetic? Is the student body diverse? Does the school serve a number of bilingual students? (We know, for instance, that bilingual children take much longer to achieve proficiency on standardized tests, yet bilingualism is an asset, not a deficit.) The ethics around school choice should be viewed with more complexity; to only look at standardized test scores as a measure of the quality of an education seems shortsighted.

 

Top Ten Books of 2015

I read fewer books this year than in years past, mainly because I’m now the mother of a toddler.  That said, here are my ten favorite books I read in 2015 (in only a little bit of an order–roughly the best of the best at the top):

Enon Paul Harding: “Most men in my family make widows of their wives and orphans of their children. I am the exception. My only child, Kate, was struck and killed by a car while riding her bicycle home from the beach one afternoon in September, a year ago. She was thirteen. My wife, Susan, and I separated soon afterward.” So begins Enon by Paul Harding. Poetically written and devastating, Enon follows Charlie’s journey through grief in the year following this tragedy. Most of the novel unfolds as memories—Charlie’s memories of being a child growing up in Enon and, more importantly, memories of sharing that childhood with Kate—and as hallucinations and dreams as Charlie becomes more and more dependent on pills and whiskey as a way to live along the edges of death, close to where he imagines Kate. Enon is beautiful and sad. I cried through much of it, fully believing the grief of losing one’s only child. It’s also often startling and illuminating. This is not a read for someone who needs heavy plot, but the poetry of the language and the intensity of emotion made for a perfect book in my opinion.

H is for Hawk Helen Macdonald: When Helen Macdonald’s father died, she fell into deep grief. She decides to raise a goshawk, something she’d always dreamed of doing, as a way to cope with this grief, and this is a memoir of that period of time. It details her training of Mabel and, more importantly, explores her own escape into wildness as a way to hide from the world in the wake of her father’s death. It is also, in part, a biography of T.H. White, who wrote The Once and Future King and who was also a falconer. As a child, Macdonald had been seduced and puzzled by White’s book about training a goshawk, and she seeks to understand his very strange relationship to his hawk, Gos, through her writing. Macdonald is honest about her own inner workings and insightful about the relationship between human civilization and the wild. She’s also a brilliant writer, which is what makes this book so appealing—I have little to no interest in falconry, nor am I familiar with White or his work, and yet this is one of the best books I’ve read this year. Consider, for example, this passage when she meets her hawk for the first time:

“…[A]nd amidst a whirring, chaotic clatter of wings and feet and talons and a high-pitched twittering and it’s all happening at once, the man pulls an enormous, enormous hawk out of the box and in a strange coincidence of world and deed a great flood of sunlight drenches us and everything is brilliance and fury. The hawk’s wings, barred and beating, the sharp fingers of her dark-tipped primaries cutting the air, her feathers raised like the scattered quills of a fretful porpentine. Two enormous eyes. My heart jumps sideways. She is a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel. A griffon from the pages of an illuminated bestiary. Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water. A broken marionette of wings, legs and light-splashed feathers…”

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness Michelle Alexander: See review below.

Between the World and Me Ta-Nehisi Coates: Coates wrote this slim book as a letter to his son after the cop who shot and killed Michael Brown was acquitted, and his son, who had been so full of hope for justice, left the room to cry alone in his bedroom.  Half memoir, half reflective essay on current events, Between the World and Me follows in the tradition of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time and has similar urgency, pain, and complexity.  Coates remembers growing up scared much of the time in Baltimore–scared of cops, scared of other Black boys who seemed to know the price of racism; he reminisces on his time at Howard University, where he discovered all the complexity of what it means to be Black, and he mourns the death of a friend of his at the hands of a police officer who was also acquitted, all while exploring the question of how to live in a Black body.

Ways of Going Home Alejandro Zambra: What stays with me most about this little novel and why it made my list is not so much the storyline–in fact the story is a bit fuzzy in my memory–instead it is the ways Zambra explores the difficulty, impossibility even, of telling “the truth.”  The novel starts with a young boy in Chile during the Pinochet regime.  He gets roped into a kind of childhood ploy of following and spying on the uncle of a girl he meets during an earthquake; though he doesn’t know why he’s doing it, he attempts to be the best spy he can be.  The novel then switches, and now we’re with the author, who is trying to write a story about a boy growing up during the Pinochet regime.  It’s hard to tell what is true in the world of the book and what is part of the story being written, and some of this confusingness captures that difficulty of truth, a concept which feels particularly salient in a country and era where nothing was true.  More than any other book I read this year, Zambra’s novel, despite what might seem like futility in the nature of writing due to its slipperiness, made me want to write.

Sweet Tooth Ian McEwan: This is not my favorite McEwan novel–Saturday and Atonement have that distinction–but it is still reliably McEwan–engrossing story, characters I cared about and rooted for, cleverness, and some trickery.  It’s got espionage, romance, and more: What’s not to love?

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves Karen Joy Fowler: Rosemary is distraught when her sister Fern disappears, and then her brother also goes missing, finding it too difficult to live in the home of their psychologist parents.  If you can help knowing too much more about the plot of this novel, I recommend it; though it’s not so much the plot that makes it a thrilling read.  Instead, this is a book that examines the psychology of what it means to be human and how much of who we are is determined by nature versus nurture.

Not That Kind of Girl Lena Dunham: I love Lena Dunham. I feel like I have to qualify my love of her because she’s so polarizing, and, let’s be frank, sometimes her outrageous honesty feels awkward and embarrassing, but I love her. I love Girls (though I feel sad that the girls don’t seem to love each other so much), and I loved Tiny Furniture. And now I love Not That Kind of Girl. The subtitle is “A Young Woman Tells You What She’s ‘Learned,’” which is almost reason enough to love the book, the quotation marks around “learned” playing on the kinds of memoirs that are self-consciously knowing and worldly. Dunham talks about sex and all the messy stuff around sex, her family and childhood, her work and inspiration, and her struggles with anxiety. She is laugh-out-loud funny and irreverent and smart. I love her lists, such as “18 Unlikely Things I’ve Said Flirtatiously” (including “You should come over. My dad is super funny.”) and “My Top Ten Health Concerns” (“The surface of my tongue is insane. It looks like a cartoon of the moon. It just can’t be right.”) Her openness (Some might see it as over sharing) to me feels like the kind of punk rock feminism I grew up with—the idea that naming what scares us or shames us can be powerful and that telling our stories in our most authentic voices, no matter how fucked up they are, can be build connection. This collection of essays is not for everyone, but I found it fun, thought-provoking, and real (even when not necessarily relatable).

Station Eleven Emily St. John Mandel: The Georgia Flu has killed the vast majority of people on the planet.  Folks struggle to survive in a world where modern technology has become obsolete, mere curiosities in museums.  But what is survival without joy?  Hence we follow the lives of a troupe of traveling musicians and actors who perform Shakespeare and various symphonies.  The narrative intertwines the stories of a handful of characters before and after the plague in a way that feels moving and believable.  The picture of this particular dystopia is scarily realistic but also hopeful.

Flight Behavior Barbara Kingsolver: Kingsolver’s latest has engaging, believable, and complex characters in a story that is mostly the same though a little didactic.  The novel starts with Dellarobia, smart, restless, and stuck in a marriage she never truly desired, on her way to an affair.  Before she fully throws herself into this first straying, she catches a miraculous sight: millions of butterflies roosting in her Appalachian woods.  This personal, private moment becomes something bigger than Dellarobia, as the town gets swept up in the monarch craze.  The butterflies’ migration to this part of Tennessee is a sign of impending disaster from climate change, and the novel charges headlong into the science and politics of global warming, leaving the reader to feel a bit doomed.  I appreciate that Kingsolver isn’t trying to leave us with a heartwarming, feel-good story: We should feel implicated.  That said, it starts to feel a bit preachy–Kingsolver has a moral lesson for us.  It’s an important one, and, while there’s not a lot of nuance to this lesson, the rest of the novel has enough layers and textures that it made my top ten list.