Monthly Archives: August 2014

White No More

It’s accurate to describe Jess Row’s Your Face in Mine as a novel about race (or, more specifically, race-changing). But race—along with grief, existential questions of identity, and the dynamics of a resurrected friendship—is only one element in this compelling first novel.

Kelly Thorndike, a public radio producer grieving the loss of his wife and daughter, runs into Martin, a friend from high school. He’s changed: Martin, who was white, is now black. Martin explains his methods, and his motivation. Ever since his days at a predominantly black elementary school, he felt out of place in his white body. Martin hires Kelly to write an article about him to so as to promote “racial reassignment surgery,” which he hopes to develop into a big business. Martin and his colleagues in this burgeoning, not-quite-legitimate industry see the surgery as a way to help people live better lives, more in touch with their ideal selves: “Who can say, if we want to get terribly theoretical, how much aggregate happiness we could provide the world, if we gave people the option to be something other than what they are?”

Your Face in Mine grows suspenseful in its last hundred pages, as Kelly realizes that Martin may not be entirely honest about his intentions for him. At the height of the novel’s suspense, Kelly makes a decision that serves the plot more than himself. This contrivance mars the novel but hardly ruins it.

It’s a little uneasy how Row treats race as an existential question more than a brutal social reality. For all the whites who, like Martin, wanted to be a person of color because they felt like one, how many people of color have wanted to be white because of the advantages that whiteness confers? Though Kelly has his moments of white guilt and privilege-checking, more attention is dedicated to Martin’s love of blackness.

Its treatment of race may seem a world away from headlines (especially recent ones from Ferguson, MO), but Your Face in Mine succeeds in addressing race without automatically placing it in a narrative of oppression and resistance.

–Published August 14th by Riverhead Books


“Excellent Sheep” Delivers More Platitudes than Polemic

William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep is built around a damning thesis: America’s elite universities (such as Yale, where the author taught) are failing to produce principled graduates, instead nurturing box-checkers who have many superficial accomplishments and technical skills but no passion or vision. This furthers inequality in the form of “hereditary meritocracy,” in which elite students appear to have earned opportunities that others never had a chance at, and pay lip service to diversity while growing more out of touch with the working class.

A book on such an important issue should be passionate, insightful, and intelligent. Unfortunately, Excellent Sheep fulfills only the first of those requirements. The book is full of statements that are initially striking but, upon second thought, are unconvincing or so vague as to be meaningless.

Deresiewicz often ascribes to contemporary elite culture what’s true of institutions of power in general. After noting the failures of the past few decades’ presidents, he writes that the leadership class “is trained to operate within the system, never to imagine that we might create a better one.” This is, he continues, because they lack the values that used to be instilled in leaders through a liberal arts education. But don’t leadership classes think within the lines, even if they have strong values?

Likewise, Deresiewicz writes of his former Ivy League students, “Most of them seemed to color within the lines that their education had marked out for them. Very few were passionate about ideas.” But haven’t most people for most of history, including elite American students of previous generations, been content to “color within the lines”? (Like most of the generalizations here, the statement above is tenuously supported by correspondence from someone who wrote to Deresiewicz agreeing with his essay “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education,” from which this book was developed.)

Those statements are shaky, but at least offer something to disagree with. Excellent Sheep is also full of self-help platitudes, especially in the section titled “Self,” in which Deresiewicz urges elite students to follow their callings and not simply jump through hoops.

As I provide examples of these platitudes, it may help to imagine Deresiewicz as the mentor figure in a mediocre young adult novel so as to alleviate their mind-numbing dullness. When the main character—an affluent adolescent like those addressed in Excellent Sheep—is wondering whether to take a road trip to clear his head, Deresiewicz tells him, “[t]o find yourself, you must first free yourself.” When the main character is in tears after a mediocre performance on his midterms, which he fears will hurt his chances at Harvard Law, Deresiewicz is there to comfort him: “[W]hat’s the purpose of being at the right point, if you’re on the wrong path? Take time off after college. Though now, of course, it’s just called life.” At the end, Deresiewicz drops off our protagonist, who is embarking on a backpacking tour of Europe, at the airport, and tells him “The only real grade is this: how well you’ve lived your life.” The young man waves goodbye and walks toward security, his backpack full of camping supplies and Kerouac.

Platitudes can be true, and some deserve to be repeated because we forget them too easily. A good young adult novel, for instance, packages them in compelling characters and plot without drowning them in irony. Yet polemic, like fiction, needs to use such corny-but-true statements sparingly on top of new insights. Deresiewicz fails to do so here.

(To his credit, the platitudes about following one’s own path and inventing oneself come with disclaimers about how hard, and often fruitless, doing so is. These disclaimers keep the platitudes from being selfish, but don’t make them any more interesting.)

Occasionally, Deresiewicz makes a good point. Addressing millennials’ distrust of institutions, he writes that as edgy as start-ups can be, systemic change is also necessary, because “what happens at the edges stays at the edges.” He also skewers the concept of “service” as demanded by the college application process, which is more about the appearance of charity among “middle-class messiahs” than actually doing good.

In the last, most constructive section of this book, Deresiewicz shifts his gaze to higher education as a whole, and lays out a plan for improvement—more seminar-style teaching, with smaller class sizes and dedicated teachers; more funding; more job security for teachers; and broad curriculums instead of hyper-specialization. Here, too, he generalizes: a breathless passage comparing “a good teacher” with an “academic” is especially simplistic.

At its best, Excellent Sheep says nothing new. At its worst, it substitutes moral outrage for the depth of thought that Deresiewicz rightly says should be fostered more widely.

–Published on 8/19 by Simon & Schuster

In Letters of Recommendation, the Humanities’ Travails

Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members—an epistolary novel comprised of letters of recommendation—has an unusual form but is notable for much more. Through these letters from Jay Fitger, an over-the-hill novelist and English professor at a second-rate university, Schumacher voices frustrations at the travails of the humanities on campuses across the nation.

These letters are sarcastic and cynical, and for good reason. Fitger is fed up with watching the English department go unfunded as it breathes the dust of the economics department’s renovations; fed up with the practice of hiring adjunct professors so as to “[bypass] the tenure track with its attendant health benefits, job security, and salaries on which a human being might reasonably live;” fed up with his students, their debt and poor job prospects after graduation, and, of course, his need to write them letters of recommendation.

He often denigrates the person being “recommended” or the institution addressed. His restrained praise for students reveals his low expectations of them: “a ten-minute conversation with the subject reveals that he has bona fide thoughts and knows how to apportion them into relatively grammatical sentences.”

When Fitger expresses frustration with his students, I couldn’t tell if Schumacher is mocking sentiments about “kids these days” or channeling them. Fitger is aghast at his students’ laxness toward plagiarism, the garish and often gratuitously violent nature of their fiction, and how “the up-and-coming generation” can post prolifically on social media but “are incapable of returning a simple phone call.”

Wait a minute, I wanted to say, there are those of us under forty who know how to put together grammatically correct sentences, return phone calls, and can write things other than indulgent autobiography or pulpy science fiction. This isn’t a criticism of the novel, only a reflection on it. Dear Committee Members would be no less funny or insightful if it were curmudgeonly as well. Additionally, Fitger’s letters on behalf of one of his students, the struggling author of a modern take on Melville, show that he hasn’t completely given up on “the up-and-coming generation.”

Fitger is cynical about many institutions, but he’s a sincere proponent of the humanities, rebuking those who’d like to see them streamlined and quantified. “Call me a Luddite,” he writes in response to a recommendation form that doesn’t fit a full paragraph, “but I intend to resist for as long as possible the use of robotic fill-in-the-blank qualifiers for the intellectual attributes of human beings.”

At the end, this novel—which until now has been clever, funny, and bitter—becomes moving as well. There’s hope in Fitger’s last letter. It’s not the ham-handed hope of monologue or exposition, the type shown when a character in a sentimental novel looks to the horizon and drops an aphorism. Rather, it’s hope demonstrated through action. We see that, despite his cynicism, Fitger is willing to work to sustain the English department.

Fitger can be a role model to those of us who work in the humanities. Like him, we should persist in the face of low pay and low esteem, and, when it seems hopeless, blow off steam through scathing comic prose.

–Published August 19th by Doubleday

Gaza, For a Child’s Eyes

The Story of Hurry is in many ways fantastical: Emma Williams’ words tell the story of a donkey disguised as a zebra, while Ibrahim Quraishi’s mixed-media illustrations throw together plastic models, marker, and often effect-drenched photographs. Yet this children’s book is also based on a true story, and is especially relevant in light of the recent swell of violence between Israel and Gaza.

The book, set in Gaza, opens by introducing us to Hurry the donkey. He’s too young to be used as a beast of burden, so he spends his days trying to make the children happy. After a zoo is crippled by Operation Cast Lead, the zookeeper decides to paint Hurry as a zebra as a treat for the children. Hurry goes along enthusiastically, doing his best to be a good zebra.

With so much pro-Palestinian rhetoric devolving into anti-Semitism, particularly in Europe, parents may be wary of this book. But The Story of Hurry is not a work of propaganda. It’s as apolitical as a book set in Gaza can be (the words “Israel” or “Palestine” are never mentioned in the story).

When IDF soldiers make an appearance, they’re portrayed as distant silhouettes, neither vilified nor humanized: Hurry and the children “would wander to the sandy beach, but they were chased out of the sea by angry men.” The border wall is mentioned casually, as a landmark, as children in less troubled regions might mention a corner store or bus stop. (The book contains a brief historical note—for grown-ups, according to the back cover—touching on the blockade of Gaza and the resulting humanitarian crises.)

I read this book with Analise, the five-year-old daughter of a family friend. She learned some new vocabulary (“lolloping”), and liked how Hurry felt sad when the children were sad and happy when the children were happy, “almost like they’re the same person.” Her final verdict: “It’s a great book.”

It would be a shame if parents avoided The Story of Hurry because of its setting. Readers of all ages could benefit from this story of resilience and joy against the backdrop of seemingly interminable conflict.

–Available September 9th from Triangle Square, a division of Seven Stories Press.

A Surprisingly Warm Tour of Sri Lanka’s Ghosts

One may reasonably expect a book on Sri Lanka’s civil war to be somber—in particular, Michael Ondaatje’s crystalline and tragic novel Anil’s Ghost comes to mind. The linked stories in Romesh Gunesekera’s Noontide Toll, however, bring a surprisingly warm view to the aftermath of the quarter-century conflict between the Sri Lankan army and Tamil Tigers. (The BBC provides an overview of the conflict in its country profile.)

The warmth comes from the narration by Vasantha, a retired clerk working as an independent van driver. He’s a simple, earnest man with a sense of humor, calling it as he sees it about “the casual brutality of what passes for modern life now.” As he drives his clients—a doctor from the diaspora visiting his childhood home, Chinese businessmen inspecting scrap metal, and Western vacationers, among others—around the island, he reflects on the changes his nation has undergone since his youth and the end of the war.

The most significant of his reflections concern the inseparability of past and present. Though many others disagree—including one client, a legendary brigadier and playboy—Vasantha knows that history matters: “We believed there was no need for the two [past and present] to be connected. But as a driver, I should have known better. To go from one to the other, you need a road. And a road is nothing if it doesn’t connect.” He also shares his thoughts on less weighty matters, like hygienic reasons not to shake hands, or the redundancy of a marketing guru’s spiel.

Books in which folksy old men tell the reader what’s changed since back in the day are often failures. They contain charm and nostalgia but not much else (not to mention that their protagonists are usually less sophisticated than our nonfictional elders). Thanks to its troubled real-world backdrop, Noontide Toll largely avoids this pitfall. There’s charm and nostalgia, but there’s also lingering terror, loss, and uncertainty.

That’s not to say that this book is perfect. Vasantha’s aphorisms often go from earnest to corny and cliché: “These days, it seems, anything could happen.” Jarring as they are, such lines are merely blemishes on a narrative that succeeds in providing a warm look at a chilling issue.

–Available October 1st from The New Press

Gwynne Makes a Good Point, But Obscures it With Uneasy Nostalgia

The title and subtitle of this book by the British educator and retired businessman N.M. Gwynne are slightly misleading. Yes, Gwynne’s Grammar is a guide to different parts of speech, punctuation marks, and the proper use of commonly misused words and phrases. However, it’s also a manifesto.

Throughout the English language and the classrooms where it’s taught, Gwynne wants to see emphasis shifted from the self (and self-expression) to the tradition that self is part of. English grammar has changed over the centuries, he concedes, but these changes came gradually and with the approval of “our ancestors,” who “both improved and guarded it.” Therefore, we must continue to guard it today, rather than accept changes as inevitable. Regarding the classroom, he advocates for a return to the rote learning of his own youth: “Contrary to education theory most widely propagated today, memorising should come first, preferably starting before understanding is even possible.”

His reverence for tradition is especially apparent in the chapter on “The Grammar of Verse-Writing.” He deplores the free-verse poetry written by those such as Ezra Pound, because “lines in accordance with regular, pre-determined rhythms, sometimes with rhymes at the end of them, were the indispensable basis of all poetry.” As the form lacks meter and rhythm, he writes, it’s impossible to distinguish between heartfelt and hackneyed free-verse poetry.

Gwynne’s insistence on rigorous adherence to the rules of grammar may seem to threaten writers’ individual style. Shouldn’t rules and form take a backseat to creativity? Who cares if a poet has something to say and doesn’t follow the rules of meter, or if a prose writer has something to say and doesn’t follow the rules of grammar?

Gwynne counters that he’s not ruling out the importance of style, but putting it in its right place: “Technique must come first, and only when mastery of technique has been achieved are you ready to move on and develop your style.” He later adds: “For most of history, the purpose of writing, as of all art, has been recognized as that of contributing, in however small a way, to making the world a better place. It was not considered to be that of writing about oneself and of self-indulgently exposing one¹s insides, as is the case with the much modern poetry so-called.”

In other words, it’s not about you. You, a writer, are part of a tradition that has set rules for good reasons—not just arbitrary ones, as many insist—and your work is very, very rarely special enough to justify breaking from that tradition.

As a journalist, I found Gwynne’s message. Growing up amidst the prosperity and free-spiritedness of Silicon Valley, I took it for granted that writing was primarily a means of self-expression. Looking back, though, I wish I’d expressed things more substantive than my self, which usually consisted of hunches and prejudices.

Writing isn’t about sharing yourself with the world; it’s about communicating (or as Gwynne puts it, contributing). That’s not to say that we can’t enrich our writing with personal experiences and viewpoints—I did so just a few lines ago—but that our selves need to take a backseat to our subject. I only mentioned my own experiences, briefly, after summarizing and analyzing Gwynne’s Grammar.

In its more conventional, but still compelling, parts, Gwynne’s Grammar lays out the rules of grammar and style. (For the style section, Gwynne adapts The Elements of Style—not the more familiar version adapted by E.B. White from his former professor, but the 1918 original written by Strunk alone.) It’s unafraid to enter controversial areas, as when Gwynne comes out strongly against split infinitives. Some of Gwynne’s pronouncements strike me as arbitrary—who gets to decide which rules to change and which to guard?—but he always presents a strong case.

More troubling is that Gwynne’s old-White-guy tone threatens to alienate those who could benefit most from his message—progressives who love literature and care about education, especially as it relates to social justice. Gwynne’s argument that teaching the science of grammar should precede the nurturing of creativity is often, and wrongly, associated with the cultural conservativism of Whites yearning for the “good old days” that only they enjoyed.

Gwynne does nothing to dispel this association. He is unapologetically nostalgic for his schooldays (“Time was when even the most ordinary education included training in competence at writing verse.”), and makes no mention of the changing demographics of both Britain and the United States.

However, a prescriptive, more rigorous approach to grammar could help the same people Gwynne overlooks. Picture a teacher in an inner-city, largely Black and Hispanic classroom, working with criminally limited resources to close the achievement gap between her students and their wealthier peers. Starting off the semester, she needs to decide between a) having her students free-write without regard for form or grammar, as long as they “express what makes you you,” or b) have her students memorize the rules of formal academic English and write analytical essays.

Option a) is often portrayed as an act of liberation: She’s giving her students a voice in a society that often silences them! But after her students leave school, what happens? They may lack the writing or speech skills necessary to succeed in higher education or search for white-collar work, or to otherwise communicate with people in positions of power. Option b) is more tedious, but gives her students the skills they need to succeed in the long run. That’s liberation.

The situation above is, of course, a false dichotomy. Teachers can both nurture creativity and teach the rules of grammar—the teacher above could make her students proofread their free-writing projects. However, as Gwynne stresses, the nuts and bolts must come first. I hope there are grammarians out there advocating for a prescriptive, more rigorous approach to teaching English, without Gwynne’s nostalgia for less inclusive days.

–Available 9/2 from Knopf


In Tsukuru Tazaki, “A Calm Sadness”

Like his name-making novel Norwegian Wood, Haruki Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (translated by Philip Gabriel) looks inside a man living with a profound but outwardly invisible emptiness. In this case, that man is Tsukuru Tazaki, a 36-year-old railway engineer who lives comfortably in Tokyo but is still numb from being cut off by his childhood friends, suddenly and without apparent reason, sixteen years prior.

Tsukuru is, by his own admission, the least notable of his childhood friends. “Sometimes, when he looked at his face in the mirror,” Murakami writes, “he detected an incurable boredom.” When a promising new girlfriend tells him he has “unresolved emotional issues” from his youthful estrangement, he sets out at her encouragement to visit his old friends.

Murakami’s prose is alternately blunt and lush, but always elegant. His descriptions of feelings are often to-the-point: “This surge of overpowering emotion that had struck him had his heart and body trembling.” His metaphors and similes are rich but never ramble along at the story’s expense. A dreamlike passage describing his isolation immediately after the estrangement—“He set up a tiny place to dwell, all by himself, on the rim of a dark abyss.”—is particularly beautiful.

While portraying Tsukuru’s inner desolation, Murakami pays keen attention to sources of beauty and pleasure, like women’s dress, food and drink, and the arts, especially classical music. This novel can be described as Tsukuru describes Franz Liszt’s “Le mal du pays:” “It had a calm sadness, but wasn’t sentimental.”

–Available 8/12 from Knopf.