Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Humbling by Philip Roth

Oh, where to start...

Lest it be thought that I let reading a book get in the way of talking about it, I'd like to present a couple of reviews and an interview: William Skildesky's writeup in The Guardian, Wall Street Journal interview with Jeffrey Trachtenberg, and Jesse Kornbluth's take on HuffingtonPost.com about this selection.  (If you perversely choose to ignore the professionals, here is a tutor's take on the whole thing.)  If you haven't read it yet, you will have to, as most of these give away most of the novel.

This is our darkest and most adult selection so far, which is my priority in writing about the book.  Others seem to have followed suit, ranging from the Kornbluth's swoon...
I found it to be Roth's best work in years; sentence for sentence, paragraph for paragraph, he's still the most readable serious writer we've got -- but I have a problem saying much about it.
...To the cattier review of Skildelsky:
"no amount of past achievement should blind one to a writer's present failings and it has to be said that Roth's new novel is, by his standards, dismayingly poor..."
And even though it's not as clear in those small quotes, both writers seem more concerned with the darkness and eroticism of the novel.  Since that has been done to death, I'd like to seize upon a small quote from Kornbluth:, explaining why he loved it so "One [clue to his preference] is Roth's interest in aging, which is not at all novelistic. He's not looking to create either charmers or complainers; he's seeking reality."  There's a conversation I'd like to see about this novel.  For those following along, the protagonist is a failed/exhausted actor eyeing his 70s, throwing himself headlong into a doomed tryst with the grown daughter of old friends.  I approached this book with quite a lot to say about the women in it, but I'd love to hear from men about the process of aging, the effects of depression, the "male experience" if you will.

The affair I referred to is a hybrid of two classically titillating formulas: old man and younger woman, and hetero man and lesbian.  This coupling is bound to distract reviewers (hell, I wrote about 2 pages on it this morning!) but I would like to hear people on the subject of Simon Alexer himself.  Any takers?

As a parting shot, I'd like to leave you with this passage from the Philip Roth Society biography, for anyone who still wants to explore the strange libido of the novel.  This is referring specifically to Roth's 2001 The Dying Animal, but may illuminate our discussion:
"Yet even though its focus in explicitly sexual, this novel, like almost all of Roth's other works, has as its theme the ways in which individuals--specifically men--live with desire in the larger sense of the word.  One of the hallmarks of Roth's fiction is the ways in which sexual, communal, familial, ethnic, artistic, and political freedoms play themselves out on the field of contemporary existence."
 What does Alexer desire?  Is he deluding himself at all, or has he reached a place where what he desires is "true", pure as any want can be?  How do you feel about the role of suicide in this work?  I found it to be the only logical outcome for this particular character, even if it feels excessively dramatic.  

Tell me what you think!

Monday, July 19, 2010

The American Dream


The Other Wes Moore - Wes Moore

"Colleges and the Rebirth of the American Dream" - Arthur Levine

Hello, it's me again!

I've been mulling over my topic for this post for a while now.  Granted, summer break is full of wonderful distractions, and everyone needs to unwind for a bit, but I confess I felt a little guilty waiting so long after I finished Moore's book to comment.  I had to wait for the right time, the right idea.

Luckily, my approach to blogging largely revolves around "what did I read in The Chronicle of Higher Ed this week that stuck in my craw?".  So good news - I found something good to bring into conjunction with Moore's book!

In summary, The Other Wes Moore is a project by the author to compare his life and circumstances with a man who is more or less his same age, from the same rough area, and had a similar start in life.  Moore grew out of the bad influences that surrounded him while the "other" Moore ultimately succumbed to the criminal life.  One passage in particular caught me:  "

When we're young, it sometimes seems as if the world doens't exist outside our city, our block, our house, our room.  We make decisions based on what we see in the limited world and follow the only models available.  The most important thing that happened to me was not being physically transported - the moves from Baltimore to the Bronx to Valley Forge didn't change my way of thinking. What changed was that I found myself surrounded by people...who kept pushing me to see more than what was directly in front of me, to see the boundless possibilities of the wider world and the unexplored possibilities within myself.
 (Moore, 179)

Levine undertakes a somewhat similar mission in his article, revisiting his old Bronx neighborhood, his childhood haunts and home.  He notes the demographic shift in families and the foreign-familiar impression of the same geography with different flavors, colors, uses.  Levine uses this as a vehicle to consider the traditional ways of "moving up in the world" - namely a college degree, the subsequent good job, the career building, root-setting pattern that many followed ( that may no longer be our American success formula, but I digress).  Levine goes on to discuss financial aid for higher ed, and the difficulties people (kids, really, his students are young in this piece) have with navigating that system.  He holds that this ultimately locks them out of the "American Dream".  He references different foundations, such as the I Have a Dream foundation, that seek to bolster troubled communities and enrich the "social and family supports [that] have been frayed".  He advocates college itself as an additional lifeline:

If we cannot recreate the social structures that gave my old neighborhood a sense of safety, cohesion, and hope for the future, we must do the next best thing: open up the nation's campuses to better serve those populations and work with school districts and government officials to build guaranteed access and financial support.
"Guaranteed access".  That's seductive.  While I believe in *at the least* getting an Associates', and I'd love to see education beyond the baseline be not just a privilege (or a veritable albatross, when I'm feeling cynical and looking at my loan amount) but a right.  If it *was* more open, and if it did adapt to the myriad new kinds of student, higher ed could regain the value it once had and cease with the "13th grade" and "ivory tower" stereotypes attached to it.

So, before I wander off again, what is the harmony between Moore and Levine, aside from their tactics?  Both men played by the rules that American culture at large still values - get the diplomas, the job, settle down and prosper.  Even if I put on my best "contrarian" hat, I have trouble arguing with that....hell, I want the degree, and the career (even if it's in segments, or I change my path, or go in some other unorthodox format), I want to prosper (have a little town house, lined with bookshelves, my dog napping on the couch).  I believe in that!  So what's the deal here?

I'm hard put to find an arena that can succeed so well at broadening the "limited world", and introducing a person to "boundless possibilities" than an educational setting.  Yes, the military works for some, civil organizations, faith communities, or (how often I wonder) plain personal moxie gets a person out of their original place physically, mentally, and emotionally - but there's nothing like a classroom.  This is where I find my American Dream.  It's in formal settings, such as lectures, or even informal ones, such as a private sally into a library or museum, or anywhere, armed with the mental framework provided by my education.  (For instance, I still hear a particular art history professor's lessons when I look at an Italian Renaissance work, or an Egyptian sarcophagi).

So if I'm to accept even a basic college education as the path to the "Dream", how to I answer to its challenges?  That it's a giant VIP room, that the degrees are inflated, that the faculty is uncaring (ha!) and the administration unfeeling, that financial aid is a racket, and that there are no jobs on the other end.....I could go on, especially as a humanities major.  Detractors love humanities majors - I should keep an album of the most "witty" jibes against schooling.  If I'm in the pro- camp with Moore and Levine, what can I say other than agreeing with them?  How can I defend that which I'm lauding here?

Maybe the proof's in the pudding:  Moore and Levine (and hopfully me too!) succeeded because they followed a certain formula, they got out of their comfort zones, they (especially Moore) did whatever they had to do to not only avoid replicating the negative patterns they encountered, but to establish new ones that enabled them to gain access to what they wanted in life.  In Moore's case, and presumably Levine's, that was not simply the material advantages, but precious intangibles.

if you want the mobility, the trappings, whatever the thing is that you desire, whatever your version of the Dream, you have to stragtegize.  That strategy cannot simply be about beating your "opponents" for a piece of that deliciousness (still going with the pudding metaphor here), but considering how to improve your own situation.  I've told people many times in tutoring to "argue from the positive" - don't tell me how the other guy or the opposing idea is wrong, tell me how you're right.  This "strategizing", in our culture's current climate, involves not just plugging along for the piece of paper at the end of whatever institution you find yourself, but (goodness help me I hate this phrase) "thinking outside the box"...all those platitudes I rail against when I'm feeling low and cranky - "follow your dreams", "develop your passions", etc. 

Now, I'm happy today, so I will opine that that is a great course to follow, whether that passion's plumbing, medicine, or beekeeping.  Just do something other than the bare minimum and have a dream, any dream for pete's sake! 

At this point, I've reached the end of this post, and I think I've found the beginning.  The point is, from Levine, and certainly from Moore, is to have something, to keep the mind open and supple, to accept and foster opportunities rather than shying away.  That's what I got when I cooked these two down.  Now it's your turn:  What did you get from either piece - or both?  How do you agree or differ with either author, or with me?  What's your chosen path, your overarching plan, and does it involve formal structures like I touted?

I'm all ears at this point! :-D

Monday, June 14, 2010

After finishing It is Well with My Soul

Nota Bene:

 I will be alluding to battles regarding education in which racism played a large role.  I will be going through tricky territory here, as I'd like to consider both this memoir and Sapphire's Precious.  Both the real and fictional women of these works rely upon education to improve their lives and broaden their thinking.  This is my true point.  Mentions of race, racism, etc as it figures into both stories is important but not the main idea.

Although it is not the only method of reading It Is Well, it adds an extra resonance to discuss Ms. CJ's memoir in terms of her particular experience as an African-American woman in the 20th century.  She seemed like an individual proud of her family and her identity, and lovingly open to other perspectives.  As for Precious, the author demands we confront uncomfortable ideas regarding race, class, and various social labels we depend upon in this culture.  In an effort to unite these seemingly divergent perspectives, it is my intention to deal with  race in these works as sensitively as possible when it arises, taking it as part of a larger context, neither avoiding nor obsessing.  Please come with me on this discussion and contribute your take on things!

There’s a lot to discuss in Ms Cheeks-Johnson’s memoir, but the theme that spoke to me the most was education. “Ms CJ” placed a tremendous value on formal education and the informal, invaluable learning that takes place in daily life. Her sense of curiosity was encouraged from a young age, and it carried her through her young adult years and onwards. Reading this, I got the sense that she never stopped learning, that she never sat there at any point and said “the hell with it, I don’t want to know”. Her children, grandchildren, and great-grands all took their academic lives seriously and parlayed them into successful careers.

I, being fixated on literacy and education, find this a wonderful story. I’d like to pass it on to people, to keep Ms. CJ’s message going. But I am not unaware of the uneasy history formal education has in America. In fact, I’d argue it’s still uneasy – a glance at the headlines will prove that. Are we fighting different battles than her generation did, or are they just in new clothes?

How much stock should we put into education? If you go through all the legally required years, get the diplomas and whichever degree is necessary this week, and find nothing at the end of it all (and a load of debt on your back) – is this the proper path anymore? I’m honestly putting these questions out there to pique you. Personally, I believe in this route. I share most of Ms. CJ’s values regarding education and the cultivation of the mind – keep the brain active, keep the curiosity up, keep conversations going even with those you disagree with. I support higher ed, and (yes!) I believe in the psychological/spiritual benefits of educating yourself farther than the bare minimum. Challenge, grow, and enjoy, I say! If you want it, go for it. Still, I want to engage the potentially troubling aspects of the theme, even if they are absent in the memoir.

Reading this book with my education filter on reminds me of reading Precious, more specifically online forum comments on Sapphire’s use of education themes. One commenter railed against the racism (!) of educating “Precious”, and the portrayal of that process as her ticket out – out of her abusive family, out of the ghetto, out of herself. This has rankled with me for months, and it again came to the surface reading Ms. CJ’s account, wherein schooling was not just a necessity but a joy.

The fictional world of Precious and the real world of Ms. CJ both revolved around expanding the mind, and engaging with new experiences. It Is Well, starting 100+ years ago in the American South, seems the opposite of the gothic urban world in Precious. Racism shows in both stories, but Ms. CJ’s recollections are of loving abundance (if not materially, then emotionally), hope, and determination. Precious’ world seems like thorough despair, but her character is sustained with a quiet hope for her life and her children's.

Why have I bought these two things into conjunction with each other? What can be gained by discussing Ms. CJ’s Masters’ degree and the fictional GED classes of Precious? What could these two books possibly have to say to each other?

Ms CJ, in her recounting, mentioned but never dwelled upon the obstacles her environment presented to a young African-American woman pursuing degrees, career, and family life. Sapphire’s character goes through a tough progression of suspicion, guarded curiosity, then acceptance of her basic literacy instruction (it’s been a while, but I don’t think she dwells much on her race as an obstacle). Both the fictional character and real woman share a desire to improve and continually develop through learning and open-minded inquiry.

Knowing what at least one (anonymous, online, maybe trolling?) commenter has said about the “inherent” (and how debatable is that word?) racial injustice in education, how can we reconcile the legitimate problems with American education with the legitimate values, and then (as the icing) the defensive attitude of some people towards the intellectual path, no matter how “basic” (those GED courses and adult ed programs)? What does this say about America at this point in history?

Do you find Ms. CJ’s path inspiring or do you feel that glorifying education to “lift” yourself into a better life is too simplistic?  If you have read Precious, how do you feel about the protagonist's education?  How did you feel about Ms Cheeks-Johnson's academic career?  Do either of these resonate with anything in your experiences?

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Ohh, Tangent!

The Rochester Institute of Technology is hosting a conference in June entitled "The Future of Reading".  As your host is a cash-strapped grad student, there will be no formal attendance.  But since your host is also rather comfortable with online life, I'll be watching the conference's site, blog, and so forth and periodically linking items of interest as they come online.

The links to the conference and its related sites are in the link section to your right.  The whole thing looks fascinating!

Open Forum!

Just a quick couple of thoughts that have been on my mind recently:

Has anyone in your life inspired you with the use of literature?  Do you have any special memories about books and reading you'd like to share?

What place do you think reading has today?  A lot of people are discussing the "death" of the book, or the "death" of reading, as they have been since the printing press, but do you find it valid or is it all hot air? 

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

"It Is Well With My Soul"

Sources for this post:

NPR Morning Edition article on Ms. Cheeks-Johnson

Penguin’s Memorial article on their USA blog

PBS’ “Remembering Ella Mae Cheeks Johnson”

When we discussed which title to start with, it was a hard decision. We all wanted to highlight a book that was entertaining, approachable, inspirational, and spoke to the NLC’s ideals of education and community service. This is a fairly tall order, but luckily we found It Is Well With My Soul, the autobiography of Ms. Ella Mae Cheeks Johnson.

“Ms. Ella Mae”, as we have taken to calling her affectionately, lived to be 106 years old, crafting her life into a truly beautiful story. She attended Fisk University in Tennessee in 1921, and later Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, becoming a social worker, traveling the world, forming a loving family, and giving back to her community. (Joseph Shapiro's NPR article)

The value she placed on education is apparent from her life story. Here at the NLC, our motto is “Reading Changes Lives” – and Ms. Cheeks-Johnson is a sterling example of what one can do with the determination and patience that education fosters. The historical lessons of her experience in this century as an African-American woman are similarly inspiring. Most of the memorial articles we found have a small story about how proud she was to see President Barack Obama inaugurated. Her story both illuminates her personal experiences and transcends the boundaries of race and culture to inspire each reader it touches.

Please join us in reading this selection, and tell us what you think. How has Ms. Cheeks-Johnson’s memoir touched your life? Does it raise any questions or observations you’d like to share?

Happy Reading!


Interrupting Myself: A Tutor's Tangent

The starting point: In a word, group helps children find their voice by Barry Carter

On May 16th, the photo accompanying Mr. Carter’s column in the Star Ledger caught my eye as I flipped through the paper, listening to my coffee perk. Above Carter’s dapper byline picture was a photograph of a young lady with thick ponytails and chunky beads, standing in front of a large blank green chalkboard. She’s in mid-word, looking to her left, her eyebrows raised and an air of seriousness about her.

The young woman that intrigued me is Mia McNeill, and she was participating in her school’s New Jersey Orators competition. Carter chose this article to tell us about the New Jersey Orators, dedicated to teaching NJ schoolchildren the art of public speaking. It’s quite an operation: “It begins each year in September with300 to 400 kids in 15 chapters from Newark to Willingboro”, and hosts weekly meetings, various exercises, and competitions, as Carter mentions.

When I was in elementary school, we had something similar, which always struck me as a useless Victorian throwback. We had to memorize and declaim, two or three kids with better short term memories than mine invariably performing to the applause of teachers, while I stumbled and skipped through my routine. Can you tell I hated it?

However, now that I’m slowly gaining my place at the grownup table, I like this idea of training kids in public speaking, making it not just an important “life skill”, but an art. A good part of my mental beat involves me circling the idea of literacy and all it entails, recognizing the often unexpected ways the skills involved in literacy crop up in daily life. But, as open as I thought I was, I had never considered public speaking (recitation, declamation, etc) as a leg of this table.

It makes sense now: If a child or an adult is capable of getting up in front of a crowd and informing, persuading, or entertaining with brevity, personality, and (yes!) panache, then they’re using all the skills we try to promote here at the NLC. This is a wonderful thing for a classroom of any sort. It would be a great idea to add to the adult program, even in small-scale ways, such as having regular “readalouds” with the adult students and their tutors.

Techniques such as those promoted by the New Jersey Orators truly take literacy out of the “reading/writing” box, out of the “classroom” box to get those children involved and passionate. That’s the kicker – passion. Carter included a small anecdote about a young man, Isiah Sams, performing his personally-written speech about his father: “Dear Father, It’s just me. Your son. Your seed…I’m old enough to feel pain, and that’s quite enough….“ Isiah’s pain is palpable, and his expression both tells on and belies his young age.

These are things meant to touch you, to form a bridge between the “places” of student/teacher, adult/child, and so on. The power of public speaking, like any of the literacy skills, is to emphasize not only the rules and techniques of form, or the content, the expression, but the humanity of the orator. What a beautiful thing to cultivate at any age.