Best Memoirs 2018

To choose one of these over the other would be unfair. I was tempted to go with the Mandela book because everyone has heard of Westover, but again…fairness. So here. You should read them both, period.

 

The Most Dangerous Place on Earth, by Lindsey Lee Johnson*****

themostdangerousplaceThe place is Mill Valley, California, the most affluent community in the USA, and yet there’s serious trouble in paradise. Although this title is being marketed as a novel for young adult readers, a lot of adults will want to read it. It’s thought provoking and a real page-turner. Thank you to Net Galley and Random House for the DRC, which I read free in exchange for this honest review. I actually finished this book some time ago, but often I find that the most interesting, complex books are ones I will want to give considerable thought to before I review them; everything I have read and thought has to gel. So I apologize to the publishers for my tardiness, but it’s not a matter of not caring; maybe it’s a matter of caring too much.

My own background is in teaching inner-city teens and street kids, but Johnson makes a good case for attention toward the privileged yet sometimes neglected children of the upper middle class. This sophisticated story features a number of characters—teachers and students—in detail. We follow them from eighth grade into and to the end of high school. There’s baggage and drama left over from middle school that high school counselors, teachers, and administration won’t know about, and it carries over and influences events in ways no one can foresee.

One key player is Molly Nicholls, a brand new teacher whose age is closer to that of her students than to many of the teachers she works with, and who can’t tell the difference between caring for students, and becoming their peer; between the professional distance used by her colleagues to protect themselves both legally and emotionally, versus jaundiced burn-out.  Molly is flattered when students come to her with complaints about other teachers, and she loves it when they tell her that she’s different than they are. But then she hits a crisis point that may abort her new career if mishandled; and the fact is, these new ‘friends’ of hers are going to graduate, while she’ll be left behind with the colleagues she’s alienated.

She just doesn’t get it.

That said, we also meet students that are stuck in a variety of unenviable positions. Young Abigail believes that she is special indeed; Mr. Ellison, everyone’s favorite teacher, spends extra time with her, drives her around in his car. His wife doesn’t understand him the way she does; she’s crushed when she realizes that he doesn’t intend to leave his wife, and that they have no real future together. She might be absolutely powerless were it not for the other power dynamic in place here, that of the socioeconomic disparity between the students’ families, who live in ostentatious luxury, and the teachers, who either commute a great distance, or live, as Miss Nicholls does, in a converted tool shed for an apartment. The relationships and the components that skew them are absolutely riveting.

Mill Valley kids don’t worry about where their next meals will come from; they drive cars far nicer than those of their teachers, and instead of allowances, they have bank accounts and credit cards.  But what many of them lack is parental time and attention, and most of them lack boundaries. And adolescents really need boundaries; they need small, frequent reminders to check them when they cross an important line. Their teachers don’t dare provide the discipline and structure; they need these jobs. And the parents often won’t.

For example, there’s cyber-bullying.  Tristan Bloch is a special needs student whose social skills often lead to miscues, and the primal behaviors of adolescents lock onto those miscues like sharks when there’s chum in the water.  Miss Flax, a teacher that counsels Tristan, makes a horrible error when she suggests that he make a move toward Calista, a popular girl who’s going through a family crisis herself as her mother lies dying in a dark bedroom and her father comes unstuck. Calista turns to her friends to deal with Tristan’s unwanted advance.  The whole ugly mess erupts on Face Book, and the result is tragic.

 

 “Teachers like [Miss Flax] were always encouraging hopeless kids like Tristan to inject themselves into the social scene with ridiculous gestures—declarations of love, blind stabs at friendship—as if middle school were a safe haven in which to conduct these experiments,  when in fact it was the most dangerous place on Earth.”

 

Then there are those like Dave Chu, a B student whose parents will be crushed if he isn’t admitted to an Ivy League college. Dave studies constantly, but he doesn’t have the talent to get where his parents need him to go, and they won’t hear of his entry into an ordinary California state college. Dave’s anxiety turns to panic, and ultimately he’s driven toward an extreme personal solution .

There’s a host of controversial material here, and also limitless potential for students’ reactions to what’s provided. I can see parents offering their child with a copy to read, and I can also see other parents hot-footing it to their child’s middle or high school to demand its removal from the curriculum or even from the library shelves. One thing’s for sure though: it’s generated a lot of advance buzz, and that buzz will only get louder with publication. It’s meaty, complicated, and an unmissable read for parents of adolescents, as well as those considering entering the minefield of teaching.

You can buy this book January 10, 2017, and you should.  Highly recommended!

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, by Bryn Greenwood****

alltheuglyandwonAnd you thought Fifty Shades of Gray was controversial.  Just remember that you heard it here first: if this novel has legs and gets around, it’s going to create a lot of noise.  I could almost smell the book-burning bonfires as I read the last half. And lucky me, I read it free thanks to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press, from whom I received a DRC in exchange for this honest review.

Wavy grows up in the North American heartland, smack dab in the middle of nowhere. When you consider it for a moment, that’s obviously the place for a meth lab to be. No sophisticated, well funded cops will sniff around and shut down your operation; there’s plenty of cheap land for the various vehicles and outbuildings such a business might require.

It’s not as if guests are welcome to drop in.

Guests don’t drop in, in fact, but two children do, one at a time, to proprietors Liam and his estranged and dysfunctional wife, Val. First Wavy arrives, a daughter that grows up with instructions never to let anyone touch her, especially her father; next comes little brother Donal, whom Wavy undertakes to raise as best a small child can do, since nobody else is available for either of them. Val struggles with mental illness and has given in to addiction with no struggle at all. Liam lives elsewhere with a small harem of junkie women that he uses sexually and as part of his drug business. When Wavy sees him, he usually yells for one of the women to get her out of there and take her somewhere else. He doesn’t seem to care who she’s with, or what they do with her.

Wavy lives briefly with her grandmother, a nurturing woman who despairs of Val’s habits but is more than willing to take care of her grandchildren, and slowly Wavy begins to bloom. But Grandma is elderly and sick, and she dies. During the brief time Wavy is with her, Grandma teaches her to read the stars. Wavy has a quick, sharp mind, and with just a little encouragement she learns the constellations. They form her only reliable connection to the world, since they are the sole immutable part of her life. Take her to live here; take her to live there. Put her in school; yank her back out. No matter what happens, she can still find Cassiopeia.

Liam’s mechanic and sometime-employee is a man named Kellen. He sees Wavy left like yesterday’s mail by the side of the road and gives her a lift on his motorcycle. To stay on board, she must touch his jacket in spite of what her mother has told her about never touching other people. We all need to be touched, and children of course most of all, and a bond is formed.

As to Kellen, he’s a strange bird, and the reader is never fully informed what his deal is. Is he, as some say, a slow learner? Is he mentally ill? All we really know comes from the inner narrative we hear from him in alternate chapters, and what others say about him. And we know what he does. When Wavy’s parents don’t show up to pick her up from school or to attend parent conferences, Kellen goes. And we know that other members of Liam’s meth crew consider Kellen to be the kind of man that won’t pull the trigger, but will help move the body when the deed has been done.

Sadly, Kellen really is the best parent figure in Wavy’s life. For those that think this is melodramatic nonsense: teach in a low income school district for a decade or two, and then come back and tell me that. Because these kids are out there.

Greenwood is dead smart when it comes to developing character. The peculiar behaviors that Wavy develops along with the period in which her physical development ceases to move forward are right on the money. The author states that portions of the story are autobiographical, and that sounds about right.

The relationship that develops between Wavy and Kellen will cause plenty of fireworks way after Independence Day has passed. Those that have triggers related to anything at all should steer clear. But for the rest, this novel is worth your time and dime. As the relationship between Wavy and Kellen begins to change, readers may lean in, or may want to hurl the book at a wall, but no one will be left unmoved.

This book is available to the public August 9, 2016, but you can order it now.

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond*****

EvictedI was cruising for something new to read, something that wasn’t yet another mystery or thriller. I ran across this title and requested it from Net Galley, then asked myself what I had been thinking! Who wants to read an entire book about eviction? What a grim prospect. I was even more surprised, then, when I opened it and couldn’t put it down. Desmond approaches his subject in a way that makes it not only readable but compelling. Thanks go to the people at Crown Publishing and Penguin Random House for approving my request for a DRC. This book is available to the public March 1.

Desmond undertook his study as part of his study of sociology while attending the University of Wisconsin, and continued it into his graduate studies at Harvard. The whole book is based on rentals among high-poverty families living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Desmond explains why this location is a good case study as regards the rest of Midwestern urban America.

Most of the text is told as narrative nonfiction, with the author shadowing eight families, some African-American, some Caucasian, through trailer parks and ghetto apartments in Milwaukee. There is a great deal of dialogue, all of which was captured with permission via digital recorder, so the text flows like good fiction. One Black landlord and one Caucasian landlord are also shadowed, and although I came away feeling that both landlords—one of whom, to my horror, was a former fourth grade teacher—were lower than pond scum, Desmond is careful to also demonstrate the ambiguities, the times when one or the other let things slide when an eviction could have been forced; brought over some groceries for a new tenant and did not ask for repayment; gave tenants opportunities to work off back rent to avoid eviction.

At the same time, we see how ultimately, almost all of what appear to be landlords’ small kindnesses are actually adding to their profit margins.

The text is nicely organized. The beginning and ending are expository in style, as a newspaper or magazine article would be, with the statistics that demonstrate how much more of a renter’s income is eaten by housing than was true in previous years; how a bad credit history can lead a low-income family into an apartment that is substandard and costs as much or more than a nice apartment of the same size in a calmer neighborhood that might be rented by someone with a good credit history; and the terrible dance that must be done to keep both heat and rent paid sufficiently to avoid being cut off with winter on the way, or evicted. It also points out that there are people living in low income apartments that should not even be living independently due to mental health issues or extremely low IQ; Desmond recognizes the times—though they are a tiny minority—in which someone takes that welfare check and does something tremendously stupid with it, not using it for housing, utilities, food, or even clothing for the kids.

He clues us in to the fact that while huge numbers of Black men are getting locked up, huge numbers of Black women, particularly mothers, are getting locked out.

Desmond discusses the various ways landlords manage to avoid fixing even the most desperate plumbing and structural issues in rental housing. He discusses the inevitability of eviction for a renter that calls police—or for whom someone else calls police—due to domestic violence. The problem is considered a “nuisance” by the city; three visits by cops in a month mean huge fines for the landlord unless an eviction is ordered, in which case fines are waived.

It’s enough to make you sick.

Particularly appalling is the situation in which Lamar (all names are changed ) is diligently scrambling to paint apartments and clean out a basement to avoid eviction. The man has no legs, but he can’t collection SSI, because theoretically, he could do a desk job. He crawls around on his stumps to paint the areas his elementary-aged neighbor kids have missed, climbs through filth and muck in a half basement, and is cursed at by his landlord, who says he is trying to disrespect her by doing such a terrible job.

He is evicted anyway, and the landlord becomes unavailable to do repairs for other tenants soon, because she and her co-owner spouse are off to Jamaica.

There are some people that would fit so cleanly into Dante’s seventh circle.

It is the individual stories of the eight families, the various fascinating rationalizations of the two terrible landlords, which keep this from simply becoming a dark place the reader would never want to go. Some of the cultural nuances were really interesting to me, and I have lived in some hard neighborhoods back in the day, and taught many high poverty students. I’ve been to some of their homes. Yet Desmond taught me a great deal.

For those interested in America’s housing crisis; for anyone that has ever been evicted; for those interested in sociology and culture, this book is a must-read.

Unlocking Minds in Lockup: Prison Education Opens Doors, by Jan Walker*****

unlockingmindsinlockupJan Walker has spent a large part of her life developing and implementing educational programs, primarily parenting programs, for inmates, and the textbook she has written for these classes is used in prisons around the USA. This book is her account of her work with prisoners of both genders in Washington State. Most of her material addresses her work with serious offenders housed on McNeil Island, a place with a notorious reputation locally because it houses sex offenders. Thank you, Net Galley and Picata Press for allowing me to access the DRC. This book is hot off the presses, and you should read it.

The primary purpose of Walker’s memoir is to let us know that 95% of those currently incarcerated will be released to their families at some point in their lives. A small percentage have their parental rights terminated, and a small percentage are in prison–really and truly–for their whole lives. Almost everybody gets out, and almost everyone goes back to their family. Wasn’t it Robert Frost who wrote that “Home is the place that when you get there, they have to take you in?” And so it is with former inmates. They’re going back to those kids. It’s in everyone’s best interest that they know how to talk to them and how to treat them when they return, as well as while they are incarcerated. She points time and again–and there is so much information and so many anecdotes in between, that it’s a good idea to bring her point back to us–to the fact that most domestic abusers were themselves abused as kids. The only way to break the cycle is to teach inmates how to take responsibility for what they have done; and how to let their children know that they have made a mistake; that prison is the consequence; and that it is not the child’s fault.

Some of this may seem obvious to you, reader, but the woman knows a tremendous amount. And as a former educator in a low income middle school, I can personally attest to the way that children internalize the things that happen to them. Some of them regard themselves as responsible for their parents’ divorces; I’ve had those kids in my classrooms. And when my first husband died in a manner both sudden and tragic, our children didn’t just think it was their faults; they knew it. They were absolutely sure. It took years of therapy to pull them out of that dark place.

Inmates are frequently semi-literate, and literacy skills are crucial to the ability to think critically. So the community college classes that seem like an absurd perk for inmates to receive free of charge, the tab paid by the tax-paying public, are actually beneficial, not only to the inmates and the children that we hope will not repeat their mistakes; they also benefit society in the long run. Better readers are better thinkers; better thinkers make better choices, and they’re better parents in most cases.

Walker has seen and heard plenty of the ugly underbelly of serious offenders’ lives, attitudes, and habits. There was more than one moment when she questioned her personal safety when the prison was short-staffed and she was alone with her classes, no one to help even within range of a good holler. She chose not to wear the gear that guards have because she wanted to differentiate her own role in her students’ minds. The gamble paid off more often than not. But she knew there were some mean, tremendously hard people there. This isn’t about that.

So don’t think she is some namby-pamby bleeding-heart enabler, because she is far from it. We know that she has seen plenty of ugly more from the way she avoids telling us the most shocking material, rather than because she flings it at us (which she doesn’t). But the anecdotes she chooses to share–with names changed for the purpose of privacy, of course–underscore her talking points, and the work is also painstakingly documented. Do you read the sources and end notes in nonfiction? I do. That part of the book says a lot about whether a writer is just referencing other writers, writing up their own opinions, or speaking as an expert. Walker is an expert.

The book starts out dry. Fight your way through that initial fifteen percent; by the time you hit the twenty percent mark, you will be really glad you stuck to it. Although I recommend this outstanding work to everyone, I recommend it especially to public school teachers, particularly those that teach at high poverty schools with large numbers of children of color. I did that for twenty years, and I have seen how deeply affecting it is for children and adolescents to have a parent in prison. Some are ashamed; a lot of them are angry or confused. Some go for a visit that involves a stiff weekend commute, sleeping in the car, and then they fall asleep at their desks on Monday. But the ones that suffer most are those that were promised a visit they didn’t get; that were expecting their parent to be released, and then the parent wasn’t; and those that are convinced their parent is innocent.

And here, though you may roll your eyes, I have to address the one little nugget that ricochets inside my brain when Walker discusses teaching inmates to own what they did and tell their children that they made a mistake; prison is their consequence, it’s not your fault. I understand the rationale, because probably 99.9% of those incarcerated (primarily on McNeil Island, which is near Tacoma, Washington, about an hour from my Seattle home) are not only guilty of what they are in prison for having done, but more offenses for which they weren’t caught. It’s also true that there are no millionaires on death row, and anyone that has read Michelle Alexander’s study of the racial disparity in The New Jim Crow, or who has followed the data produced by the NAACP and other organizations centered on #BlackLivesMatter, knows that Caucasians serve hard time far less often than people of color that commit the same crimes.  But that does not mean that those that are there didn’t do the crime; they did….most of them.

At the same time, my mind kept going back to exceptional people–none of them on McNeil–that I am convinced are innocent. Should Leonard Peltier tell his children that he made a mistake, when he was framed? What about Mumia Abu Jamal? What about the lesser-known Mark Curtis, whose rape case was so clearly bogus that the local chapter of NOW endorsed his case? I know that in the last case, parole was denied over, and over, and over again because he refused to sit down and be rehabilitated for a crime he did not, did not, did not commit and would rot in prison for his entire life before he would crumble and confess to a lie just to get out of that place. He’s out now, but he sat through his whole sentence because he could not have parole by maintaining his innocence.

So although these cases are exceptions rather than rules, and I actually think Walker’s program is both strong and essential, it’s worth bearing in mind that once in awhile, someone that says they didn’t do it, really didn’t do it.

I have so many outstanding passages I flagged, so many poignant anecdotes, so much compelling evidence. I finished reading this book a week ago, but it is the really excellent ones like this that I have to mull over for awhile before I can write the review. I had 187 notes, and it was impossible to select some over others. I went back and reread them, and apart from a few paraphrased instances mentioned above, I think you’ll do better to read them in context, the way she wrote them.

The heartbreaking thing is that now that her classes and text have been adopted around the nation, they have been canceled at McNeil. Some wise ass somewhere decided that volunteers could be found to do this work. Sure, maybe once. Really sturdy do-gooders might last six months, even. But the work has to be done consistently, and you can’t fire a volunteer who phones in sick all the time, or just doesn’t show up, and those that are incarcerated need to develop a relationship with a single reliable professional instructor. I hope the Washington State legislature will reconsider this critical, valuable part of rehabilitation in our prisons. If we can’t raze those prisons to the ground, as the old folk song suggests, then let us at least make a difference for the children of those that are in them.

Highly recommended for all educators, for Civil Rights activists, and for anyone concerned about social justice. Actually, I recommend it to everyone. You can get it right now.

College (Un)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students, by Jeffrey J. Selingo ****

collegeunboundCollege Unbound is a thoughtful, informative, and nearly exhaustive look at the ways in which higher education may best serve today’s young learners. Thank you, Net Galley and Amazon Publishing for this extremely useful volume, which I received free in exchange for my review. It will be available for sale April 28.

It became available at an important time. My youngest child is a high school senior contemplating college; I am retired, and still paying off my own student loans. Selingo’s discussion of the worth of post-graduate education, whether it is better to attend a two year school or pony up for a pricy school that has a lot of perks and more financial aid available, and the ways in which higher education itself needs to change gained my full attention.

It seems that my own debt-ridden situation is not unusual. Now that not all student loans are subsidized by the government, many graduates exit the comforting, ivy-covered walls of higher learning saddled with 50k or more in student loans and no guarantee of future employment. Most at risk are those that excel in liberal arts, since today’s economy is more geared toward mathematics, technology, and hard sciences.

Selingo suggests, among other things, that higher education needs to unbundle, so that students can combine credits and experience from a variety of schools and other sources, such as on-the-job training, in order to receive their degree. He also points out that many students can get the best result for their dollar (or yours) with a one or two year certification program at a local community college or technical school, rather than paying out the big bucks for a 4 year or advanced degree.

As I read, I flagged nearly 100 passages that I thought were worth revisiting. There’s a lot of information here, and a lot of thoughtful ideas. Selingo has the experience to back his suggestions, and in addition to citing his sources in a conversational way for greater accessibility to text, Selingo has also spent many years in college administration and journalism, including the much-lauded US News and World Report guide to colleges.

One thing I watched for all the way through, as he discussed a wide variety of options, including online learning and experimental hybrid classes, was what he thought of alternative schools. At one point he used the term, but it turned out that he was referring, once again, to online and “unbundled” options. Given that the author discussed the need to avoid “dumbing down” curriculum for the sake of students-as-consumers (here, here!), and the need for critical thinking skills that would create better problem solvers once graduates hit the job market, I immediately thought of actual alternative schools such as Evergreen State College, Bennington, Eugene Lang, and Antioch, where students are not just taught rote content, but how to think more critically. My daughter attends a strong alternative high school, and all four of my other children went there too, turning down Seattle’s much-lauded AP program for highly capable students. I gained my teaching credential and advanced degree at one of these alternative colleges, and although the student loan debt is no joke, I was able to go directly from school to a job in a field where the average graduate in Washington State had to spend three or four years working in temporary or substitute positions while waiting for their break.

And so…what? And this is why the fifth star in my review is denied. Just like US News and World Report (now moribund save for its college guide), Selingo completely leaves alternative schools out of the picture. If he doesn’t like them, he should say that and explain why. If they are recommended, he should include that information.

My conclusion is that this is nevertheless a really good resource for parents of teens who are trying to decide what choices to offer their children after high school is over. The decision, says Selingo, is often not a rational one, and this resonates. How many parents go for the higher price tag because they feel nothing is too good for their son, their daughter? And yet, says Selingo, more expensive is not always better, and a rarefied atmosphere does not always produce the result anticipated by those who pay or borrow heavily. I’ve only scratched the surface of what he has to say. So although I do recommend also considering alternative education, when you find yourself facing that vast selection of college-shopping materials available, include this forward-looking volume in your collection.

Although most teenagers won’t likely read it, adults considering returning to school and facing the financial decisions for themselves, rather than their parents, should also give Selingo’s discussion your time and attention.

In order to get the best education at the best price for ourselves or our children, we must first learn about the schools and educational paths we are considering.

The Hurried Child, by Dr. David Elkind ****

thehurriedchildI’m using today’s book review to revisit a previously published book. I think it’s valuable to both parents and educators. Recently I’ve seen some reality TV competitions in which girls in their middle teens were dressed up to look like they were twenty-five. Sometimes that’s a judgment call, I guess, but this brief but authoritative book reminds us that it’s important to let kids be kids, and that when our girls feel rushed to become women, they may later thank us if we remind them to slow it down a bit.

To put it another way folks, don’t put mascara on your twelve-year-old, and don’t buy it for her, either.

Elkind makes a lot of really strong points here. This book is more geared toward those who are raising children (parent/guardians…so many, many grandparents raising kids these days!) than toward educators, who follow the school or district’s policies regardless, but since teachers often influence the choices made by the children they teach, it’s worth reading whether you have children in your home, your classroom, or both.

The last chapter draws a lot of extremely conservative conclusions with which I would not care to be associated, and this is why the final star is denied. However, in this day and age in which kids in fifth grade come home and announce they have a boyfriend, in which teensy children are packed off to beauty contests carefully coiffed, manicured, and covered in cosmetics, this is a breath of healthy, let’s-get-real common sense.

If you are a parent who is not sure what children should do as they move past early childhood, or if you have questions about adolescents, this is a good read. Sadly, the people who should most read this book probably won’t, and those who are already doing a pretty decent job probably will.

Still, highly recommended.