American history, revisited

Over the past few weeks, reading two books had a profound impact on the way I see the country I live in and the structure of its society. The books are Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen and These Truths by Jill Lepore.

Loewen, a college professor, conducted an extensive survey of high school textbooks in order to figure out why students in his introductory courses had such a problematic understanding of the nation’s history. Loewen describes the results of his examination of more than 10 textbooks that are commonly used throughout the United States. Since the initial publication of Lies in the late 1990’s, the author has conducted followup studies and prepared new editions. The book is timeless, however, in its indictment of issues stemming from the publishing industry to school boards and whose tentacles extend into the classroom and therefore into the knowledge bases of generations of students.

The book examines a variety of topics that are typically studied in American history classes, from Columbus “discovering” North America to the Civil War and the War on Terror, and including towering historical figures such as George Washington. Most chapters tackle one specific subject. For example, the Pilgrims and the story of the “first Thanksgiving” as taught in the classroom is cross-examined using primary sources which take into consideration the staggering number of Native Americans who were slaughtered at the hands of European invaders, who stole food and land from native people and infected them with diseases.

Loewen discusses the concept of hero worship and how young people frequently find history to be boring. Why wouldn’t they, when lessons on Helen Keller end with her learning to speak? What if Keller’s advocacy for those with disabilities was considered, as well as her embrace of socialism? Young people are taught that the Founding Fathers essentially invented democracy and that they were formidable men without blemish. We teach our children nothing about how the Framers wrestled with issues of equality, religion, and slavery as they wrote the Constitution. The challenges that these ordinary men faced are ignored or glossed over.

While Loewen is clearly pushing an agenda by proving that textbook publishers cobble together historical fiction narratives, (many of the people credited as “authors” of textbooks don’t write a single word) he does an excellent job of presenting a more nuanced portrayal of the American story. He also presents a compelling reason for why students find history boring. There’s no conflict. American history is presented by flawed textbooks and their tedious, convenient lesson plans as a series of facts to be memorized — state capitals, important dates, battlegrounds, names and topics — all items that can be assessed by standardized tests. There’s no narrative arc, no confronting of challenges. Wars suddenly “break out” instead of lessons describing the tension bubbling under the surface. Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and slaves were free; no additional racial issues are addressed until the Jim Crow era is briefly mentioned. Protests against the Vietnam War are acknowledged but the My Lai massacre is missing.

How can students learn to synthesize information, form opinions, or think critically if they aren’t provided with facts? Historically accurate American history includes some upsetting subject matter (as evidenced by the 1619 Project). Until our citizens are faced with these facts and evaluate their own place in history, our country will find it much more challenging to face this moment of social upheaval.

Which brings me to the second book: Jill Lepore’s incredible undertaking, These Truths. A Harvard professor, Lepore tells the complete history of the United States from early explorers and settlers through the inauguration of Donald Trump. Read immediately after Lies My Teacher Told Me, it’s a great candidate to replace shoddy textbooks all across America, except it doesn’t have full color pages, a gazillion photos or even “critical thinking” questions at the end of each chapter.

These Truths clocks in at over 750 pages before the hefty notes & index sections (as Loewen points out, lack of sources and footnotes for textbooks is a clear indicator that something is wrong). The “truths” referenced in the book’s title are initially outlined in the Declaration of Independence as principles the government is formed to secure for the people.

Political equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people are the truths to which Thomas Jefferson referred. In one draft, he called them “sacred and undeniable,” until Benjamin Franklin changed the text to “self-evident.”

Lepore breaks her work into four main parts and weaves those foundational elements of political equality, natural rights, and sovereignty through the volume; a touchpoint reached more effectively in some time periods than others. She examines technological innovations and their impact on civil discourse, including via journalism (the printing press, radio, television, and Internet) and campaigns through the decades. For example, it used to be considered insulting for candidates to directly address voters, except through letters printed in newspapers. Can you imagine?

Lepore’s book is in some ways a love letter to America through a lens of tough love. How can you truly love something (a person, a country) without acknowledging its faults and flaws? Through a narrative of soaring prose and incredibly deep citations, Lepore examines the American experiment, warts and all. Taken in combination with Loewen’s work, she provides an excellent example of what a book about American history can accomplish: challenging and educating the reader with a commitment to accuracy and a keen eye to the details of our country’s founding documents.

A well-informed population can look to the future with the full knowledge of challenges their forefathers overcame. It’s no wonder that many are struggling to come to grips with slavery’s impact because it was not and continues to not be taught properly in schools. That leads to an improper understanding of the Confederacy and its racist roots, which means when statues of so-called confederate heroes (ie traitors against the United States) are removed, there are those who do not understand the egregious nature of the crimes of the confederates.

Civic education forms a foundation upon which the next generation of leaders is constructed. To learn more about the limits of classroom education in America, pick up Lies My Teacher Told Me (it’s older, so likely available at the library). For a not-so-quick refresher course on American history, grab These Truths. It’s an elegant read, and one which may leave you feeling a bit hopeful in these dark days, knowing that the United States has been through tough times in the past and lived to tell the tale.

the view from here

A young adult thriller set in New York City in 2118, The Thousandth Floor transports you inside The Tower, the skyscraper which changed the city’s skyline forever. It’s the tallest building in the world, encompassing entire neighborhoods and school districts.

The perspective shifts between 5 teenagers that have all sorts of challenges in their lives — Rylin, whose mother cleaned for the rich families that live “uptower” before passing away; Leda, who spent the summer in rehab but isn’t ready to tell her friends; Watt, a computer genius who is guarding an illegal secret; Eris, whose posh, enviable existence is threatened by new revelations in her family; and Avery, who lives in the penthouse of The Tower and appears to have everything she could ever want — except for one thing.

The Thousandth Floor, much like American Royals, was a compulsively fun read. The various narrators really help to advance the plot and keep the action going, in addition to making it easy to keep track of the characters.

The haves and have-nots are brought to life in a very real sense, both through the social interactions of the characters and McGee’s descriptions of the floors of The Tower. It is easy to picture this behemoth of a building dominating New York City, and the reader can quickly adapt to the futuristic technology which makes life in The Tower possible.

The teenagers of the future are concerned with all the things that concern today’s teens: spending time with friends, college, love interests, and of course social media. The wealthy kids go to balls and fundraisers with their parents, and the kids that live on lower floors go to work. There are parties and drugs and fights and breakups. This is a story glimmering with hope, with social climbers and money as important as some of the main characters.

I really enjoyed this book, albeit one of the main plot points had a bit of an “ick” factor to it. I’ll probably check out the next one in the series anyway, because the author is solid and she plots the hell out of her books.

The Thousandth Floor is the second Katharine McGee book I’ve read, with the first being American Royals. She writes some amazingly complex characters, and my only real complaint would be that the females seem to be the most troubled. In American Royals, all the narrators were female; The Thousandth Floor provides McGee’s first foray (at least to my knowledge) into a male perspective. So we only really see the girls wrestling with their demons, and they therefore come across as more needy or problematic than the boys, whose insights aren’t provided to the reader.

Go ahead and give The Thousandth Floor a shot if you want to be swept away and entertained. It was a quick, entertaining read with some great twists.

life and death are one

Long Bright River is a stunner. There’s no other way to put it. Liz Moore crafts a slow-burn of an intergenerational novel set in the opioid ravaged streets of Philadelphia.

Police officer Mickey walks her beat in Kensington, watching the ladies work the streets and fearing for the well-being of her estranged sister, Kacey. As Mickey investigates a murder, she enlists the help of a detective with whom she was once romantically involved and angers the higher-ups at her precinct.

When Mickey reaches out to her grandmother and other family members in an attempt to locate Kacey, she begins to fear the worst. Will she be able to find her sister before it’s too late?

This book absolutely floored me. I felt the color drain from my face a few times while reading it, and could not tear my eyes away from the page.

Long Bright River made me homesick for my beloved Philly, and I could picture the streets in the neighborhoods that Liz Moore describes in such loving detail. While she set the book in real places, and the book was devastatingly sad, she wrote the story in a way that is a tribute to both the city and its inhabitants.

At turns a thriller and a quiet, painful examination of addiction (to drugs, to work, to control, to drama) — Moore’s story examines a family turned inside out and a society that’s benefited by abuse.

“For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one…” ~Khalil Gibran

Long Bright River is available on Bookshop.

The Empty Chair

Un-Su Kim’s The Plotters is the story of a strangely endearing assassin fighting for both continued business and personal survival in South Korea’s hectic election season.

Reseng was raised in the Dog Library, the hub of government-sponsored murder for hire, after being abandoned in a garbage can as an infant. Old Raccoon, the appointed head of the Library, rescued Reseng and brought him into an unconventional family of trained killers. Though Reseng never had formal education, he taught himself to read and was instructed in various killing techniques by brother-figures who had also been pseudo-adopted by Old Raccoon.

Due to Old Raccoon’s age and the Library’s declining influence in the now-crowded murder-for-hire business, Reseng feels a target on his back as the South Korean population prepares to elect new leaders. In a distinct and fascinating fashion, the reader is transported along on his journey while he examines the paths he may have chosen (marriage and family), disastrous decisions (not following the explicit orders of the plotters in one or two assassinations), and the comfort of his childhood spent amongst dusty old books.

Along the way we are treated to a fascinating and sometimes endearing cast of characters including the crematorium operator, an “invisible” man, a chatty shopkeeper and a cross-eyed, furiously knitting clerk.

The Plotters was an engrossing read, and I’m very glad I discovered it. The first two-thirds were a tour de force but I found myself a bit disappointed in some aspects of the plot toward the end. Where the book really shown was in the introspective pieces of Reseng’s character, and the relationships he forged with others in the business. I also loved reading of the seedy not-quite-underbelly called The Meat Market, and the old fashioned customs and respect paid to father figures in South Korean culture.

The Educated Family

In The Topeka School, readers meet the illustrious psychotherapists of the Gordon family, their son Adam, and members of their community in Topeka, Kansas. Author Ben Lerner introduces the doctors Gordon, Adam’s parents, separately, and also reveals a great deal about their back story as a couple. Young Adam grows up throughout the book, transforming from an anxious young man who is active in competitive debate to a doctor himself.

When I read a book I enjoy getting lost in it, and arguably, The Topeka School is tough to dive into. The author is loquacious and fond of unusual words (or else all of his narrative characters are, which is a fair counterargument given their levels of education). This is a mid-90s book which heavily explores the personal and professional dynamics of a unique family, where the mother is very well known and the son is attempting to live up to the high expectations of his parents.

Going into the book, I had an idea that it wasn’t exactly a beach read, but I also thought it would be easier to become immersed in than I originally found it. Many threads were available that were never fully pulled, from the lost soul Darren who wanders in and out of the story to friendships Adam had with his high school buddies, and the ending of his mother’s relationship with her own best friend.

Given that I only recently finished reading Megan Phelps-Roper’s book Unfollow, I found her family’s featured role in The Topeka School to be an interesting nugget. In the end, I don’t recommend this book but I also don’t recommend anyone specifically stay away from it. If a young man’s development throughout the 90’s is interesting to you, then by all means read it. I learned some new words, enjoyed the highly nuanced character development, and thought it was fine.

More Money, More Problems

In The Two Income Trap, not-yet-Senator Elizabeth Warren and her daughter examine the results of a detailed study of bankruptcy in America and highlight why families still can’t make ends meet, in a society where more often than not, both parents are working.

Wait, did I lose you? I promise, it’s not a snooze-fest. And if you aren’t into liberal senators, this book was written in the early 2000’s, before the 2008/2009 bubble burst and well before Warren ran for office.

The book is truly easy to read, aside from the fact that it made me so angry. The authors describe the research sample they used to come to their conclusions, which is expounded upon with some thick citations in an appendix along with copious notes for each and every page.

To begin the narrative, the authors describe case studies of middle-class couples in different eras. They name the couples, describe their lifestyles and their homes and detail their monthly expenses, from the mortgage to insurance to vehicles.

Once we get a feel for the families and their lives, the authors introduce an event which affects the income of the family, such as a temporary inability to work for health reasons, or a layoff. From there, we can see the impact on each family, as their financial buffer is eroded more quickly than you’d ever believe, based on the family’s status in the middle class.

The basic underlying theme is this: if a family’s budget is based entirely on both parents working, that family is living on the edge should one income suddenly go away.

This concept makes sense, intuitively, but couples in America often follow a pattern, as the authors explain: buy a nice house in the suburbs, in a good school district, and put the kids in that great school. Those nice houses typically have a mortgage that requires two incomes. In other words, we have priced ourselves out of the suburbs, because we want what’s best for our kids — beginning with a good education from a nice suburban school district.

The authors explore the budgets of their sample families, from mortgage and utilities to expenses such as dining out, school sports fees, electronics purchases and things that could be considered frivolities. They explore common myths about debt, including overconsumption (that modern families frequently buy luxury items they cannot afford and that’s what causes them to go into bankruptcy) as well as debtors being “immoral” and not caring about their bankruptcies (the incorrect concept that people spend their way into debt, declare bankruptcy without a care in the world, and then spend their way into debt again, abusing bankruptcy laws).

In addition to busting myths about debt, the authors take the time to explain bankruptcy law in easy to understand terminology. As a law professor at Harvard, Elizabeth Warren specialized in bankruptcy law and this book helps to illustrate the wide range of her knowledge on the subject. She explains how single mothers especially fall into danger of declaring bankruptcy, and that even with the recent strengthening of child support laws around the country, those payments alone are insufficient to provide as much as a second parent’s income to the children.

_The Two Income Trap _does a phenomenal job explaining bankruptcy, debt, and the way the U.S. economy has put families at a significant disadvantage. The authors use the final chapter of the book to give what is called a “Financial Fire Drill” — the ability for the reader to assess the state of their finances and see if any adjustments can be made in order to make them more secure about bankruptcy.

Warren also makes a case that sounds very familiar to those following the 2020 presidential race: one for universal child care. The cost of child care impacts single parents and two-parent families alike, and making it free for all parents can help relieve the burden for all working parents.

Give this book a shot, if only to understand that the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality is not enough to solve the problems our society has created for modern day families. It will open your eyes, no matter your party affiliation.

What She’s Saying

When Theo, a psychotherapist, applies to work at The Grove, a mental hospital on the outskirts of London, he knows exactly what he’s getting himself into. He knows that The Grove may go bankrupt any day due to lack of funding and that it’s being overseen by a strict medical board. He also knows that Alicia Berenson, The Grove’s most famous patient, hasn’t spoken since her husband’s vicious murder years before, and Theo is determined to get her to speak.

It’s an intriguing premise for a book, and debut novelist Alex Michaelides’s resulting thriller is indeed a page-turner. The reader meets both Theo and Alicia first-hand: Theo as the narrator, and Alicia through her diary, which begins in the month prior to her husband’s death.

Theo clearly crosses the line between therapist and investigator as he searches for clues as to why Alicia pulled the trigger. She was found guilty of her husband’s murder after being found in the house next to his body. A renowned painter, Alicia produced a shocking and fascinating self-portrait prior to her arrest for the crime.

As Theo digs deeper into Alicia’s past, we meet the staff of The Grove, as well as the celebrity patient’s extended family members and the local community that supported her artwork. Will he solve the mystery about why she killed her husband before he losing the chance to get her to talk?

My Take

There is a LOT of hype around The Silent Patient. I mean, a lot. So my expectations were pretty high when I cracked the book open… I’ll say that, for the most part, they were met. Yes, there’s a shocking twist. There are quite a few shady characters, causing the reader to cast a wide net of suspicion as they progress through the book. I’ve read some criticisms of the writing style but think that there’s a reason Michaelides crafted his prose in the way that he did — it adds to the narrative of Theo, at least.

This was a book where, once I burned through the ending, I wanted to go back and re-read it to see pieces I may have missed that led to the final outcome… but there are so many good books out there! So I doubt I will. I can see it coming to life on the big screen, and I’m sure some film studio has already scooped up the rights. The Silent Patient has been compared to The Girl on the Trainand even The Woman Next Door, and it’s certainly on par with both as far as the thriller aspect. It was exciting, creepy, just a bit disturbing, and even more — dare I say politically correct? — than a lot of “mental health” thrillers on the market… Alex Michaelides takes into account the business angles of how a mental health facility is run, the lives of the patients, how medication can be problematic, the motivations of clinicians and the oversight of the facilities.

All in all, a fascinating read. I recommend it 🙂

Question Everything

Imagine for a moment that you are a highly visible member of a small, vocal group. You’ve grown up in that community of people, the vast majority of whom are your family members. You work for them and with them, every day. The rest of the world is made up of sinners who are blind to the true meaning of life and of God’s teachings.

Then, a sliver of doubt appears in your mind. The cracks of doubt splinter off each other and become deeper, wider. You begin to consider the unthinkable — leaving your family and your church behind.

This is the story of Megan Phelps-Roper, about her life in the Westboro Baptist Church, in her own words.

Unfollow is a uniquely compelling book written by a fascinating woman. It is obvious that Phelps-Roper grew up reading the Bible, as her sentences are beautiful on their own and gorgeous when strung together into paragraphs. There is a lyricism to her writing style which distinguishes it from that of other young authors.

Phelps-Roper’s book invites readers inside of the world of the Westboro Baptist Church, which was founded by her grandfather. As she describes her family life and upbringing, it’s easy to see how she and her siblings and cousins were indoctrinated in their youth. She mentions a few family members who left the fold, and how those left behind see them as lost to Satan forever.

As she grows up and finishes her schooling, Phelps-Roper is proud to be her mother’s right-hand woman, taking on the daily responsibilities of scheduling travel, protests, and being the Twitter arm of the WBC. As her mother faces criticism and harsh punishment from the church, though, Phelps-Roper begins to experience doubt.

As she leans into this doubt and asks questions, seeking answers from the Bible and other church members, she also approaches people with whom she’s interacted on Twitter and relays her questions to them. I actually cried tears of joy in this section of her tale. The capacity of human beings to forgive and to heal is remarkable.

Her entire story is remarkable, and worth reading. The language and lifestyle can be harsh and tough to read about, but you will likely find yourself uplifted by the end of her journey.

the decade

Between 2009 and 2019, I had two marriages, one divorce, and three groups that I considered family with whom my ties were cut forever. I owned three Toyotas and totaled one of them. I purchased one used car and one new car. I embarked on four new jobs and ended one career. I moved ten times and lived in four different states. It was exhausting.

The period between 2012 and 2014 were some of the darkest days of my life. I lost one family that I married into, and two groups of friends/colleagues that I was too ashamed to speak to during the divorce and its aftermath. It was awful and I really hated myself. I took the ending of those friendships as a sign that I didn’t deserve friends, and I retreated into myself.

Toward the end of 2014 I began to get my shit together. Between 2014 and 2016 I put the work in. There was daily progress but it was more of a slow trudge than a rapid ascent. One step up and two steps back, as Springsteen says. Now here I am, facing down the start of another new year.

What’s challenging about assessing our lives based on the calendar is that time is such a weird construct. When I think of how time passes it doesn’t reflect the changes in my mindset. They’re just days, they’re just minutes and months. I didn’t know myself at all in 2010 — I hadn’t identified what I needed in a relationship or in a job or even in how I perceived my identity. The person I was in 2010 is drastically different than the woman I am now. In 2010 I wasn’t willing to examine myself. I wanted to make enough noise to drown out the demons instead of looking deeper inside to see what all the yelling was about.

I don’t have goals for the year or for the decade. Instead, I want to continue finding and amplifying the best version of myself. I don’t put up with the same things that I used to — from other people or from myself. It’s cliche to say I learned to put myself first, but health concerns from celiac disease to IBS and anxiety have made me slow down, focus, pay attention to what I allow to enter my mind and body. I look at my existence as an airfield, where I have to give permission for the space around me to be breached.

Isn’t that the most beautiful part of life? We can make those choices. We can say yes or no. If I hadn’t gotten married in 2009, I don’t think my life would have given me the same choices that eventually lead me to Matt once I was ready to meet him in 2016. Life is incredible. Here’s to more of it.

2019 In The Books

It’s January 1, and according to my 2019 spreadsheet, I finished 64 books last year. That’s a huge leap from the 2018 total of 37 — a jump that I attribute to my extended illness and the increased free time I had due to not working.

Since I didn’t write up every single book I burned through last year, let’s take a broad overview of some highlights and lowlights.

Light Reads

I didn’t indulge in many fun, flighty books in 2019. That wasn’t intentional, but scanning through the list it’s easy to notice that I focused on some dark subject matter. From Jason Rezaian’s Prisoner to two gritty Cristina Alger thrillers, The Swallows by Lisa Lutz, She Said, Catch and Kill, Life Undercover by Amaryllis Fox, Just Mercy (I really want to see the movie!) — none are for the feint of heart. Even Trick Mirror, which I’m reading now, and Unfollow—another one I’m currently working on — are dense and take some energy to read. Not that it’s a bad thing. I’m just saying a lot of the books I enjoyed took something out of me this year.

Here are a few light read recommendations:

  • American Royals by Katharine McGee was a really unique book about the Washington family, a Windsor-esque dynasty that became royalty because their patriarch, George Washington, accepted the throne offered to him by the rebels when they defeated the British.
  • Girl Logic by Iliza Schlesinger is probably my favorite comedic book of the year. I adore Iliza, and was thrilled to attend one of her stand-up shows in Portland, ME this summer. Her writing style is just as unpretentious and hilarious as her comedy. Although the book isn’t a new release, her storytelling abilities are timeless and she gives some insightful advice in the vein of Amy Poehler’s Yes Please!
  • Also in consideration: City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert, Savage News by Jessica Yellin, Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reed, Who Thought This Was a Good Idea? by Alyssa Mastromonaco, American Princess by Stephanie Marie Thornton, and Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner.

Heavier recommendations:

The subject matter for these may be tougher to handle, or they may be more dry / nonfiction / not able to be categorized as “light” reads.

Ones to avoid

Books that, for whatever reason, didn’t work for me.

  • The Rumor by Lesley Kara, Looker by Laura Sims, Keep You Close by Karen Cleveland

Happy reading! Here’s to all the great books that 2020 will bring our way 🙂

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