Tag Archives: books

Some book recommendations for the rising sophomores

Members of our Class of ’19 (rising sophomores) have a summer reading assignment for English to read The Other Wes Moore and write five blog posts about it. Additionally, they must read one other book of their choice from a list of authors/works compiled by the department. The list can be found here. Since the list is long and a little chaotic, I thought I’d give some recommendations.

Each year over Winter Break, I like to read books from the NYTimes “10 Best Books” list. Two books from The 10 Best Books of 2015 that I read over break made it onto the summer reading list: Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories and Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk. I loved both books, but it is the Berlin collection that has really stayed with me. It is long, and since she returns to the same themes often, some of the stories feel repetitive. However, the investment in time is well worth the effort, and any young writer interested in writing short stories in an autobiographical mode should consider picking up that collection. You’ll notice that Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me is also on the NYTimes Best of 2015 list. I haven’t gotten around to reading it yet, but the entire faculty is reading it this summer, so stay tuned.

There are a lot of other authors on the list for the rising sophomores that my English department colleagues recommended, and whom I adore and enthusiastically endorse. We put Evelyn Waugh on there. My two favorite books by Waugh are Scoop and A Handful of Dust. Scoop is a satire about the media and journalism, and it is as funny and fresh today as it was when it was written (1938). I taught it one summer about seventeen years ago when I was teaching summer school at Hun, and I’ve often thought about teaching it again. The Modern Library Association put three novels by Waugh on their 100 Best Novels list, the two I mentioned plus the over-hyped Brideshead Revisited. Back at the turn of the millenium, I made a project of trying to read all 100 novels on their (just-published) list, but I only made it through about 80 of them before I gave up. Go ahead, call me a quitter!

A few books that we recommended last summer and the summer before (when the blogging assignment was different and students only had five books to choose from) have reappeared on this year’s list. I strongly recommend Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. They are two of the best novels written in the last decade, and rising sophomore bloggers who have written about them over the last few summers have enjoyed them immensely. The Art of Fielding is great if you happen to be a baseball fan, but it is funny and brilliant and can be enjoyed by anyone. Wolf Hall is perfect for readers who enjoy historical fiction. It is set in the England of Henry VIII, and it has spun off an entire industry of TV shows, stage adaptations, etc. Read it! (And then read the sequel, Bringing Up the Bodies, and get ready for the final book of the trilogy, which is coming soon.)

I was a fantasy and sci-fi fanboy in my younger years, and we put some great options on the list. I’m not particularly a fan of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, but it’s there if you want to go in that direction. (I read the first six books in the series, or something like that, in high school and college, and I admit that peoples’ tastes change over time. I find his work too derivative now.) I’d rather see you get to know the work of Terry Pratchett, who died in 2015, and who is one of the funniest fantasy writers of all time. (The Discworld series is the obvious starting point.) We also put Philip K. Dick on the list, and his writing is so influential, eerie, and intelligent that I would encourage everyone to read him. I guess I would recommend Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? as a starting point, but I like VALIS, too.

Finally, you’ll see that Raymond Chandler is on the list, and you pretty much have to read Chandler if you want to call yourself a well-read citizen of the planet. Start with The Big Sleep, and then read The Long Goodbye. His detective stories don’t ever quite make sense, but the pleasure is in Chandler’s style, and the atmosphere, and the wonderful narrative voice of his protagonist, Philip Marlowe. High school students often try to write in this genre, so it is a good idea to feed yourself the roots of great detective fiction.

Disagree with my recommendations? Have some recommendations of your own? Leave a comment!



Start of the School Year, Goals, Etc.

I remember reading the Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson when I was in college, and I was stunned that Snorri’s version of the Norse myths includes activities after Ragnarok. Isn’t Ragnarok supposed to be the end of the world?

This school year feels a little post-Ragnarok-y to me. Some dear colleagues are gone now, and I’m adrift without these pole stars to keep my ship (a Viking longship?) pointed in the right direction. Nonetheless, I’m a believer in creative destruction, and now it’s up to the rest of us to rebuild our world. I guess that’s my mission this year.

This is my seventeenth year as an educator, but my first as a full-time administrator with no classroom duties at all. Add to that the impending birth of my first child, and you can understand why I’m somewhat out of sorts. I tell everyone that I’m a permanent beta guy, so this is my opportunity to live it. I was hoping to get my goals posted here before the school year began, but things have been so hectic that my blog will have to take what it can get: the evening of the second day of school.

Goals for School Year 2015-16

  1. Establish an efficient routine for myself in the Deans’ Office that will maintain my reputation as a colleague who gets things done.
  2. Support our interim Dean of Students wholeheartedly and good-naturedly.
  3. Use my influence as “minor discipline czar” to show students compassion and help them be their best selves.
  4. Use my paternity leave to truly unplug from work and build my new family.

That last goal is the scary one. A lot of men feel that there is a stigma around paternity leave, and they worry that taking one will derail their career. I’m very blessed to be in a good position to take a paternity leave, and my employer’s policy will enable me to do it, but I’m very unused to taking time off during the school year. This article in the NYTimes over the summer is a great primer on the topic. It cites a study that shows that men who take paternity leave lessen the number of sick days that their female partners need to take after they return from their maternity leaves. Interesting.

I’ve got other things that I need to do this year, too. I’m still a member of my Adaptability Project team, and we are going to continue to meet this year. We presented our “Technology Renaissance” proposal to the full faculty last week. We have feedback cards to collate and process, and then we need to formulate a road-map to get this proposal approved. My paternity leave means that I won’t be able to present at NAIS with the other Adaptability Project folks, and that’s a disappointment. I’d love to be there to support my colleagues (and run the Twitter backchannel), but having a baby is clearly priority number one.

The pace in the Deans’ Office over the last week has been positively frantic. In truth, I’m energized by that, but it isn’t infinitely sustainable. I have long-term projects that I want to steward, and I won’t get anywhere if I’m always reacting to what’s walking through the door. I actually read a book about workplace productivity over the summer to prep myself for this (Work Simply by Carson Tate), but I’m still getting knocked off my game over and over again. I need to find some serenity. (Good thing that I’m still an academic advisor, so I attend Meeting For Worship here at GS.)

I look forward to finding new ways to use my blog this year to reflect on my work. I apologize in advance if I transform into a predictable daddy blogger in November.

Reading “Excellent Sheep”

On Friday the conversation at the Adaptability Project seminar briefly turned to a book called Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life by William Deresiewicz. It sounded like something I needed to read, so I downloaded it to my iPad and have spent the last two days devouring it.

The book is a deadly accurate takedown of the ridiculousness of elite education in the United States, which, as you probably already know, flows backwards from U.S. News and World Reports “Best Colleges” to the admissions offices of the elite colleges and universities, to the test-prep industry, and finally to high schools. Deresiewicz’s particular contribution is to focus on what this system is doing to the intellectual development (and psycho-emotional development) of the students at the top of the heap, the students who are at the elite institutions, earning straight A’s. Deresiewicz provides ample first-hard evidence, and heaps of anecdotal evidence, that those students are unhappy, not intellectually engaged, and missing the only opportunity they’ll get to develop a life of the mind.

Deresiewicz is a sympathetic guide for me, since we both attended Columbia (albeit eleven years apart) and both have taught English (him at Yale, me at a couple of prep schools). He doesn’t need to work hard to convince me that all students need to study the humanities. It is interesting that he goes out on a limb and seriously counsels students today to avoid the Ivies, Stanford, Williams, and Amherst, and suggests that their best chance to receive a serious education in college probably lies at the second-tier liberal arts colleges. (He mentions Kenyon, Wesleyan, and Mount Holyoke as examples. Good schools, if you ask me.) Exactly who his intended audience is seems to keep shifting; sometimes I feel like the book is being written for other educators, sometimes it wants to address students, sometimes it reads like a warning to parents raising teenagers. That’s okay; I’d recommend that everyone connected to a preparatory school read it.

Ultimately, the book affirms the choices that I’ve made for myself. I didn’t chase after grades in college, didn’t throw myself at competitive internships, and didn’t take a job in consulting or on Wall St. just because everyone else was doing it. I dropped off that path, as Deresiewicz recommends, and ended up as a humble school teacher. Deresiewicz is right: you aren’t a “loser” if you aren’t the CEO of a Fortune 500 company by the time you reach middle age. Framing adult outcomes for our teenagers as a binary with only “winner” or “loser” as the possibilities is no doubt contributing to the increased diagnoses of anxiety and depression that we are seeing among high school and college students. (Once you get over the homesickness, if you experience any, college ought to be the best cure for depression available!)

I’ve been reflecting on the issues that Excellent Sheep presents all year during the run-up to the Adaptability Project’s summer seminar. I keep coming back to the insidious wickedness of the college rankings racket and the negative distortion beam that they cast on America’s phenomenal higher education industry. Solving this problem is beyond my limited influence, but I must continue to think about ways in which I can use my career to lessen the impact of the collateral damage.

Gimme Summer Readin’

Year Two of the big summer blogging project begins next Monday. Like last year, all of George Schools’ rising sophomores are required to read a novel (from a short list of options) and a poetry anthology. Then they must blog about their reading. In the spirit of shared intellectual activity and plain old fairness, here’s how my summer reading is going so far.

As soon as exams were over, I began reading Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality by Jacob Tomsky. It seems like I’ve been staying in hotels more often in recent years, and I’ve wanted to know more about the industry. Tomsky’s memoir is a funny and fast-paced insider’s view of life as a hotel employee, and I tore through it in a couple of days. Tomsky is a personable narrator for a fellow liberal arts major like me, and he leaves the reader with a lot of practical advice on how to appeal to (and not piss off) a hotel’s staff. How useful was it? Well, I took Tomsky’s advice when I checked into a hotel (that shall remain nameless) in Baltimore this past Friday night. I slipped the desk jockey a $20 “just for you” as I was giving him my credit card and ID, and my wife and I received an incredible upgrade in return. If you like to travel and have ever wondered about hotel work, read the book.

After I finished that, I read Steve Osborne’s The Job: True Tales from the Life of a New York City Cop. The book received a positive review in The New Yorker, and it sounded like the kind of thing that I would like. (I love old reruns of Law and Order: Criminal Intent.) Osborne’s style is direct and matter of fact, but he is a gifted story-teller, and he makes you feel like you are riding along with him on patrol in NYC in the bad old days before Giuliani was elected and the crime rate plummeted. Although most of the book focuses on Osborne’s early years on the job, the last third of the book has the most heart-wrenching stories. You’ll fight back tears reading about the death of Osborne’s dog, the death of his father (also a cop), and 9/11.

Now I’ve just begun reading On Such a Full Sea by Chang Rae Lee. This dystopian novel was selected by a colleague of mine for the summer blogging project, and it is one of the books the rising sophomores can choose from for the assignment. I need to read all of the options so that I can interact with the students via the Comments section of their blogs, and I don’t want to pretend that I’ve read a book when I haven’t. Last year this same colleague selected Amy Tan’s The Hundred Secret Senses, so I had to read that in a hurry. Chang Rae Lee actually came and did an assembly here at George School a couple of years ago, and he read passages from On Such a Full Sea right before it was published. It is interesting for me to read a dystopian novel right now because the last novel I read with my freshmen this spring was Brave New World. Huxley has a better sense of humor than Lee, but I actually find myself more often comparing On Such a Full Sea to William Gibson’s The Peripheral, which I read this winter. I suppose there is a distinction to be made between a “literary” dystopian novel and Gibson’s futuristic sci-fi, but for this reader, Gibson makes the future a whole lot more interesting, believable, and fun, yet he sacrifices none of the cautionary aspect in return. Gibson loves the details of culture — such as music, fashion, brands, retail, technology, transportation — that Lee glosses over or hasn’t fully thought through. I’ll read On Such a Full Sea to completion, but I recommend The Peripheral if you want to read a book set in the near future that will get you thinking.

Spring Break Reading

I’m always trying to keep up with my independent reading in order to set a good example for my English students. Long vacations are an opportunity to unplug and just sit down with a good book. I brought two books with me on my recent spring break getaway.

I started off with New York 1, Tel Aviv 0, a collection of short stories by Shelly Oria. I found the book displayed on the featured new fiction table at Labyrinth Books in Princeton. The stories feature characters who are astride two worlds; most are Israeli expats living in New York. They are both Israeli and American, they think in English and Hebrew, and they are often bisexual to boot. The tales are often so direct in their frank delivery that you could accuse them of being too blunt, but that’s an Israeli personality trait that the the author occasionally references within the fictions themselves. I enjoyed the collection so much that I’d like to find one of the stories to share with my students this spring. (Many are too explicit, I’m afraid.)

I’ve wanted to read something by Edna Ferber for a long time. She is often an answer to NYTimes Crossword Puzzle clues (“______ Ferber, author of Giant“); they like four-letter words with useful vowels. While rummaging around the English department office looking at essay collections to use with my students, I found a musty old hardcover copy of Ferber’s So Big. Actually, the book was one of the ones owned by our school library and slated for the trash bin. I have a colleague who likes to rescue these books and rehabilitate them. In truth, I don’t think anyone was ever going to pull this copy of So Big off the shelf in our office if I hadn’t done so, but just by finding one additional marginal reader, my colleague has made his point. So Big is the kind of novel that I typically don’t like; a multi-generational tale of the rise and fall of the fortunes of an American family. But Ferber creates wonderful set pieces and describes early 20th century Chicago with such energy that I found myself engrossed. I wasn’t as emotionally involved as I was when I read Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons (which is a masterpiece of the genre), but I appreciate that the author’s moralizing was a little gentler.

I have a little under a week of vacation left. Maybe I can squeeze in one more book before it’s time to get back to class. Suggestions?