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!

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.

“Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”: A Psychologist Explains the Development of Racial Identity, by Beverly Daniel Tatum *****

whyare all the black kidsThis is a wonderful volume, legendary and still current after over a decade, both for teachers and parents of Black youth. It’s not a bad read for everyone else either. For those who have felt uneasy watching African-American students group together (this is written for a US audience, but I suspect the principles apply in almost every developed nation with any sizable dark-skinned and disenfranchised population), take heart. It’s good for them to do that, at least for awhile.

I am retired from teaching now, but I can recall uneasily wondering, at first, whether I was doing something wrong when my Black kids would all land together in the same work group, when my students did group work and chose who they’d work with. Was I creating a little Apartheid in my classroom without knowing it? Were my Caucasian students making my Black students uncomfortable? What was I doing wrong?

I got a clue from two places, and they were both at home. I noticed that my then-teenage son, who is Black, mostly hung out with other Black kids. When I married my husband, who is a Japanese citizen, he asked me to look for a house in a heavily Asian area, and if I couldn’t find one, to go to the Black community rather than an all-white neighborhood. So by the time I read this book, I had the pieces, and Tatum helped me put them in the right places for a better picture. I breathed a lot easier after I read her book.

Turns out that when Black kids have what Tatum calls an “immersion experience” it improves their self esteem. They need, for awhile at least, to be around kids who look like them. It’s a healthy thing for them to do. If you are Caucasian, it isn’t about you. You aren’t being rejected; its just that African-American kids (or sometimes it’s all dark-skinned kids, with a subtle but distinct shift somewhere along the pigment gradation line) need each other. And if you are a teacher who isn’t African-American, it isn’t that you have created an unhealthy classroom atmosphere, as long as you are providing choices.

But as much as I enjoyed teaching, my family is where my heart is, and so I paid closer attention to this phenomenon when the family from two states gathered, which we do about once a year, sometimes more. At whole family gatherings, I have noticed that in our multiracial family, all the African-American kids clump together, usually sooner rather than later. Cousins from three different families converge into a block, walking away from their paler sibs. There’s an age gap of about a decade, but it doesn’t matter.

There’s nothing exclusionary or unfriendly about it; others who join them are greeted warmly, and sometimes the working class Caucasian siblings land over there with them sooner or later, as the professional Caucasian siblings merge with the older white folk. It’s almost eerie. It is as if there were a magnetic force field that calls only to pigmentation.

Tatum makes sense of all this. She lets us know that this is normal, and that it’s not only okay, it’s great.

This book is a classic must-read for teachers for all the right reasons. Parents of Black kids may benefit, and anyone else out there who worries or feels excluded may enjoy having the mystery erased. If you’re not Black, it’s not about you. Relax. And if you are African-American, maybe you already knew, at some level, but still might like to see what an African-American academic has discovered over the course of her research.

Interesting and extremely useful to a lot of folks on a lot of levels.