Monday, December 27, 2010

New Yorker Fiction 2010

This year the New Yorker published 54 pieces of fiction. I read 27 of them. Here were my top ten favorites, in chronological order:

Safari, by Jennifer Egan (1/11/10)—a psychologically astute portrait of a group of people on safari in Africa (excerpted from A Visit from the Goon Squad) (post)

Trailhead, by E. O. Wilson (1/25/10)—the Queen of an ant colony dies; the colony reacts (excerpted from Anthill) (see also)

Ask Me If I Care, by Jennifer Egan (3/8/10)—adolescent punk rockers and their passions (also excerpted from A Visit from the Goon Squad)

Ash, by Roddy Doyle (5/24/10)—disorienting eruptions in a marriage

Agreeable, by Jonathan Franzen (5/31/10)—a searing episode in the life of an adolescent girl (excerpted from Freedom) (posts)

The Landlord, by Wells Tower (9/13/10)—a man's investments go sour

Birdsong, by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie (9/20/10)—a woman in Lagos has an affair with a married man

Corrie, by Alice Munro (10/11/10)—subtle surprises in a long-standing extramarital affair

Boys Town, by Jim Shepard (11/8/10)—a socially disconnected and increasingly dangerous unemployed veteran

Escape from Spiderhead, by George Saunders (12/20 & 12/27/10)—disturbing experiments and moral choice (post)

Honorable Mentions to Fjord of Killary, by Kevin Barry (2/1/10); Blue Roses, by Frances Hwang (11/1/10); and Costello, by Jim Gavin (12/6/10)

If you're curious, here are links to my top ten lists from 2008 and 2009.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

St. Louis Public Schools (2)

About a year and a half ago, I wrote a blog post in which I tried to take stock of the challenges facing the St. Louis Public School system, as I understood them.

That blog post was influenced by some of my introductory experiences with SLPS as a parent, as well as by Daniel J. Monti’s book A Semblance of Justice, which takes a somewhat cynical view of the school desegregation efforts that have occurred in the St. Louis area.

I had found Monti’s book after reading Common Ground, J. Anthony Lukas’s celebrated account of school desegregation in Boston. I was looking for something that would explain and analyze St. Louis’s school desegregation with similar perceptiveness and rigor. But in comparison to Lukas’s gripping and incredibly informative narrative, Monti’s book felt abstruse and opaque—and it took for granted that its readers already understood the basic facts of the situation.

I was born in 1976 and grew up in Lindbergh school district, though I attended Catholic schools. Although the desegregation case was being negotiated and settled in my formative years, I had only a vague notion of its origins and a general understanding of its purpose and meaning.

Through an old article in the Riverfront Times I discovered another book on St. Louis school desegregation, Stepping Over the Color Line: African American Students in White Suburban Schools, by Amy Stuart Wells and Robert L. Crain. This book, published by Yale University Press in 1997, finally gave me what I was looking for: deep background on the roots of school desegregation in St. Louis; a clear description of the voluntary interdistrict transfer program; an analysis of its execution and consequences; a sense of how St. Louisans, black, white, urban, and suburban, felt about the program; and an understanding of the political realities involved with the program.

After reading this book, I took another look at my previous post about SLPS. I’m surprised and gratified to find that much of it still seems true. But Wells and Crain’s book has given me a much deeper context for understanding the issues I was struggling with.

Most significantly, I have a more nuanced response to Daniel J. Monti’s central thesis, as I understood it: that the desegregation program was mostly a symbolic gesture that purported to address deep-seated issues of inequality while in actuality not doing much to deliver justice.

On the one hand, I can see Monti’s point. I was startled to read, near the end of Stepping Over the Color Line, that in a representative year of the deseg program (1993), it consumed only 3 percent of the state’s total budget, compared to the separate 25 percent of the state budget that went to education. Though politicians may have used the program demagogically as a symbol of government waste and handouts to the undeserving black poor, in the end the amount of the budget devoted to the desgregation program was relatively small. And many black students, victims of Missouri’s long and ongoing pattern of unequal housing, educational, and employment opportunity, did not benefit at all from the program.

On the other hand, many of those who did participate in the program did benefit significantly. I’ve met several of them since I wrote my original post, actually. Wells and Crain, in addition to documenting convincingly that black city students benefit from attending suburban schools, also show the falseness of the alternative that opponents of the program often proposed: to use the deseg money to fix up the city schools instead. Politically, that was never an option. The deseg money was there because the courts forced the state to provide it.

Or, more accurately, the suburban and city school districts that agreed on the out-of-court settlement, in combination with the courts, forced the state of Missouri (which refused to participate in the settlement talks) to provide the money.

These St. Louis-area school districts agreed to the settlement not because they acknowledged that they had helped to create a racially unjust system and wanted to atone for their sins. Instead they agreed to the settlement because (1) they didn’t want to risk losing local control of their district, and (2) they realized that the settlement would mean lots of money for them. (And thus the settlement proved a fact of politics that I’ve come to understand: For the poor to get anything, the middle-class and wealthy have to get something too.)

In my original post, I explored the idea that the St. Louis Public Schools were the biggest losers in the desegregation settlement. My reasoning was that they had lost some of their best students and most committed parents, while also having to open up some of their most coveted spots to white county students. But, having read Wells and Crain, I now see that in fact SLPS saw significant gains from the settlement: for each student who left the district for one in the county, SLPS still received 50 percent of the funds they would normally have spent on that student. In addition, SLPS got additional funding for curriculum development, personnel, and capital improvements; and for the creation and maintenance of the magnet school program.

The biggest losers, I now realize, were the county districts—like Wellston, Jennings, Normandy, and others—that were “on the wrong side” of the lawsuit, according to one of the SLPS lawyers involved in the case. They were on the wrong side because they were already predominantly black and therefore received none of the money that flowed to the city and the rest of the county during the desegregation project. They were basically in the same plight as the all-black schools and neighborhoods in the city, yet they received no help from the state in the desegregation agreement.

SLPS, Wells and Crain helped me see, were both victims and perpetrators of segregation and attempts to remedy it. They created a separate and unequal system before Brown v. Board of Education and were slow and ineffective in dismantling it after that 1954 decision. At the same time, they were also in a bind because of the racial politics of the time, with rapid white flight (often spurred by racial fear) from the city and intense racially motivated demands from the white families who remained. They were stuck with the challenge of educating a largely racially segregated and impoverished population—stuck with this challenge by the suburban districts who thrived on the tax base that St. Louis County sucked out of the city. Yet the city schools often did a mediocre job, at best, of actually using their resources to help that population. This mediocrity is not surprising when one considers not only the daunting nature of the task, but also that in the late 1980s and early 1990s the school board included a powerful contingent of anti-desegregation members with ties to a local white supremacist group.

For that reason, in addition to the suburban districts that were largely African American, the black students left behind in neighborhood schools also got the rawest deal in the desegregation agreement. It’s understandable, from that perspective, that a group of black city dwellers would turn against the program. Their views were shared by Freeman Bosley, Jr., who found an anti-desegregation stance a useful political strategy for capturing both black and white votes and becoming the first African American mayor of the city.

As Wells and Crain acknowledge, there were political casualties of the desegregation agreement, and significant monetary benefits went to the very suburban districts who had helped to create the problem in the first place. (Though many suburbanites were ignorant of this basic fact.) Yet the book convinces me that the St. Louis city-county voluntary transfer program was something extraordinary. It was a real if small step in the direction of justice, one that gave black students a real chance, in fact, to achieve success in the way that conservatives always prescribe—to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.

After all, don’t the images of black students standing on deserted corners by despair-filled housing projects waiting at 5:30 a.m. for buses to take them on the long ride to school call to mind other famous bootstrap examples of black Americans who endured discomfort and hardship in order to grasp the rare chance at an education?

Think of Frederick Douglass learning to read with the cast-off books of his master’s son. Or Booker T. Washington sleeping under a sidewalk while on a walking journey to a school that would be open to him. Or Ralph Ellison hopping a freight car in order to make his way to Tuskegee Institute because he couldn’t afford to get there any other way.

For the most part, however, white suburban St. Louisans didn’t see it that way. They just saw those students’ long journeys as a waste of money. Or they focused on the taxi cabs that took home the ones who had to stay late for some athletic contest or disciplinary consequence. Or they felt pity for the transfer student, a pity born of an aesthetic distaste for such a seemingly nonsensical arrangement—without understanding the much more disturbing nonsense of the historical and present color line in St. Louis.

With the desegregation plan set to end in 2014, what is next? Do all of the resources that went to provide at least a semblance of justice to black students simply melt back into the general budget for the state, or get returned to the taxpayers?

It’s clear that ignoring the educational problems caused by segregation does not work. In recent years, a number of the virtually all-black suburban districts passed over by the desegregation settlement have lost their accreditation, and the Supreme Court has ruled that parents in those districts have a right to send their kids to schools elsewhere. It’s the same issue that led to the desegregation settlement that will end in three years. The underlying racial, economic, and political realities have not really changed. It’s just that now the conflict is even more pronounced within St. Louis County.

Looking at a district like Wellston or Riverview Gardens, one realizes that, were it not for all the desegregation money pouring in from the state, SLPS would be in much, much worse shape than it is today. If middle-class whites (like my family) are to some degree moving in to the city, surely it has something to do with the fact that there’s still some hope left for the district. Would that be the case if not for the desegregation arrangement?

Reading Wells and Crain, however, I also come to understand more deeply how even well-meaning whites get caught inexorably in a system that perpetuates racial inequality. As the city scrambles for students, competing with private schools and charter schools and the ever-present alternative of exodus to the suburbs, and the racial balance requirements for the magnet schools fade, the best schools in the city system become whiter. This happens because white parents, who tend to have more connections, more time to make pestering phone calls, and more personal and cultural resources, will naturally do all they can to give their children the best chance at a worthwhile education.

From one perspective, there’s nothing wrong with that—just as there’s nothing wrong with a family moving to a suburban neighborhood that’s safer and has better schools. Yet, from another perspective, it’s exactly what perpetuates racial inequality, and exactly what led to the lawsuit that eventuated in the desegregation agreement.

Apart from straight-up racism, much of St. Louis whites’ distaste for the desegregation plan comes from the loss of local control (which feels to many like a basic American tenet) and a sense that the government is unfairly giving something to someone who hasn’t earned it. What this perspective misses, though, is how long the government unfairly took away something—opportunity in education, housing, and employment—from African Americans, how recently it stopped doing so, how long the legacy of that injustice will take to remedy, and what type of steps will need to be taken in order to do so.

For St. Louisans, these perspectives are a determinative part of “the cultural framework through which they view the world,” to use a phrase from Wells and Crain. In our segregated city, it’s all too easy for whites and blacks to develop quite different frameworks and thus to respond to the world in very different ways. The voluntary transfer program forced white St. Louisans to think about their frameworks. Some, Wells and Crain show, responded by becoming resistors, actively criticizing the program and hoping it would go away. Others became sympathizers, feeling a sense of charity toward the transfer students but no real strong enthusiasm for the notion of desegregation. A smaller group, mostly teachers, became visionaries, embracing the new perspectives offered by desegregation and changing their own behaviors in ways that ended up making life better for everyone involved, not only the transfer students.

As I finish reading Stepping Over the Color Line, I ask myself what my own response has been. On the one hand, I’ve largely been on the sidelines: educated in parochial, Catholic schools, I now teach in a prestigious and very predominantly white private Catholic school. In that school’s library, a reading room is named in honor of Daniel Schlafly, an alumnus who sent his own kids to Catholic schools but spent decades on the St. Louis school board, playing an important but ultimately ambiguous role.

There are many things I love about the school where I teach (of which I am also an alumnus), yet I also recognize how it is implicated in the racial injustice of the St. Louis area. I love the city magnet school my daughters attend, but I understand the privilege my white family has secured by obtaining coveted spots in this school while other city students are mired in failing, segregated schools.

What might “being a visionary” mean for me?

This past semester, for the first time, I taught an African American literature class. I learned a lot, not only from the large amount of reading I did to prepare for the course, but also from talking about race every day with a group of high school seniors that was 25 percent black (much higher than the overall percentage of black students in the school). For me, teaching that course is part of being a visionary, but it can’t be the end. After reading Stepping Over the Color Line, I realize that I need to do more. I need to get involved with the student group at my school that works to promote intercultural understanding. I need to get on the diversity committee at my daughters’ school, to help ensure that this great school doesn’t become a haven only for white students.

And I need to keep reading.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Hope in the Christmas Season

From a series of reflections (including my own) on hope in the Christmas season, a powerful passage from my colleague Jim Linhares:

The experiences we desire most deeply in life—love, joy, meaning and fulfillment—don’t come automatically for us or those around us. Fundamental things about life get in the way: the experiences of loss, loneliness, violence, vulnerability to forces we can’t control, the inevitability of death. Eventually, as mature adults, we come to see that these things will never go away. Under these very difficult physical, psychological and spiritual circumstances we have to figure out whether or how we can keep pursuing those deep desires. The term “God”—and many other terms in other languages and traditions—has served as a placeholder for the deeply felt experience that we keep going not only by our own efforts or by solving the problem of existence with our own minds, but by somehow being OPEN to a gift that is larger than ourselves. “God” is the name we’ve given to the source for that gift, that hope. I’d say we are in a period of human history in which the term “God” feels small and irrelevant to more and more people who have mistaken it either for something we human beings made up to solve our problems or for something completely beyond us that might as well be appealed to through something like magic.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Plutocracy in America

This interesting essay by Francis Fukuyama about whether America is a plutocracy, and if so, why, includes this important point:

Scandalous as it may sound to the ears of Republicans schooled in Reaganomics, one critical measure of the health of a modern democracy is its ability to legitimately extract taxes from its own elites. The most dysfunctional societies in the developing world are those whose elites succeed either in legally exempting themselves from taxation, or in taking advantage of lax enforcement to evade them, thereby shifting the burden of public expenditure onto the rest of society.

Watching People

Catching up on New Yorker fiction this Christmas break, I went back and read two pieces by Jennifer Egan, inspired by a couple of year-end posts at The Millions that praised Egan's new novel as one of the year's best.

It turns out that both pieces, "Ask Me If I Care" and "Safari," are excerpts from that novel. Both are excellent and have left me eager to read the novel in its entirety.

At the end of "Safari," an eleven-year-old boy dances with his sister in an African discotheque full of tourists like themselves. A couple of old women, his sister notices, are watching them dance. These two women have been on safari with the group during the story, mostly peripheral characters who are never without their bird-watching binoculars.

"Maybe when there are no birds they watch people," the boy says.

His sister grabs his hands and they keep dancing, and then he has a further realization:

"I don’t think those ladies were ever watching birds," he says.

Egan herself, one is tempted to imagine, is much like the old women who may have found their companions more interesting to observe than the birds. The great pleasure of these two excerpts is Egan's intense perceptions of her characters, of the interplay between them, both overt and subtle. She's a people watcher reminiscent of Alice Munro, and she shares Munro's intricate sense of the complexity and ambiguity of human emotions and relationships.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Escape from Spiderhead

**Spoiler Alert**

George Saunders's story "Escape from Spiderhead," in the current New Yorker, has echoes of Daniel Keyes's "Flowers For Algernon," as well as some previous Saunders stories: the clinical horror of "93990" and the clinical entrapment of "Jon"; along with an ending that's quite similar to the ending of "CommComm." At times it veers on the edge of the thought-experiment quality that made "In Persuasion Nation" and The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil less successful as fully realized fictional worlds. But, on the whole, it's a gripping story, a "wild ride," to use Saunders's own term from this fascinating and illuminating interview with Deborah Treisman—and it lingers in one's mind.

In the interview, Saunders asserts that "if the writer is doing his job the story will have an understory that steadily becomes more apparent." In Saunders's own best work, the "understories" are multifaceted and echo off each other in interesting ways. Thus "Jon" can be a re-working of Plato's cave allegory, a satire of our modern advertising-soaked brains, an intiation story, as well as a human drama "about having to rise to the occasion of love," as Saunders puts it.

One of the understories in "Escape from Spiderhead," I think, is the suicide of David Foster Wallace, who was not only a friend of George Saunders but also very much akin to him as an artist.

Though another of Wallace's friends, Jonathan Franzen, dismisses the notion that DFW's suicide can be explained as being the result of a chemical imbalance, most accounts of Wallace's final months make it clear that he had gone off his normal meds because he disliked the side effects, but that the change in medication left him adrift, feeling the kind of terrifying depression that a character in Infinite Jest memorably compares to being in a top floor of a burning building, weighing the fear of immolation against the fear of jumping out the window to one's death. It seems to me that, in fact, recognizing the chemical aspect to Wallace's suicide is actually part of a humane and sympathetic response.

"Escape from Spiderhead" forces us to think about chemicals, about how much of what we think of as our identities depends upon the chemicals that our bodies produce. The prisoner test subjects in the story are all equipped with "MobiPaks" by which researchers intravenously pump drugs into them. These drugs can make them obedient, articulate, or sexually erect. Indeed, they can make them fall in love. Or they can make them suicidally depressed.

In the climax of the story, the main character chooses to dose himself with Darkenfloxx, which has already driven one test subject to destroy herself, in order to avoid being a party to the death of yet another. Here's the result:

Then came the horror: worse than I’d ever imagined.... Then I was staggering around the Spiderhead, looking for something, anything. In the end, here’s how bad it got: I used a corner of the desk.

It's a horrifyingly succinct description of suicide—and the first thing I thought of as I read it was David Foster Wallace, and how his death could be summed up just as briefly and horrifyingly: belt, patio rafter. Also, how Wallace's death, judging by his own descriptions of suicidal depression, was probably precipitated by just this type of unbearable psychic pain.

Saunders's story, perhaps at some level inspired by its author's response to his friend's suicide, moves beyond Franzen's snarkily dismissive statement about chemical imbalances and confronts us instead with profound mysteries: What if our personalities, our actions, our happiness or sadness are, in large part, determined by the chemicals in our bodies, our brains? How do we understand ourselves and each other? How does that affect our notion of morality? How should that influence the organization of our societies? What does it mean to be human? To be humane?

Saturday, December 18, 2010

A Year in Reading

I started this year’s reading by alternating between a big Russian novel, The Brothers Karamazov, and a big collection of stories, the Library of America’s edition of Raymond Carver’s stories. The Carver volume I found intensely enjoyable and thought-provoking; Dostoevsky, on the other hand, though intermittently gripping, left me agreeing with Nabokov’s judgment that Tolstoy is a much greater writer. For that reason, I’m planning on reading War and Peace this coming year with a group of my colleagues.

After that, I dedicated most of my reading to preparation for a class on African American literature that I taught this fall. I read Arnold Rampersad’s recent biography of Ralph Ellison, which I found quite enjoyable and informative for teaching Ellison’s novel Invisible Man in the spring in my Alienated Hero class.

I read three coming-of-age memoirs by African American males, Jerald Walker’s Street Shadows, James McBride’s The Color of Water, and Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father. I taught Obama’s book in my fall class and was astounded again by its intelligence and the complex understanding of the world that it communicates—astounded and grateful once again that Obama is our president. David Remnick’s The Bridge was a compelling and useful companion to Obama’s story.

I did take a couple detours into Faulkner during the year, re-reading As I Lay Dying early in the year and reading The Unvanquished in the summer. As I Lay Dying came alive for me this time in a way that it did not the first time I read it. The Unvanquished was a quick, enjoyable read, though also troubling in what it seemed to reveal of Faulkner’s understanding of the South’s past, especially in comparison with the vision presented by the stories and novels of Charles W. Chesnutt, which I also immersed myself in over the summer.

I re-read a couple African American classics by women, Toni Morrison’s Beloved (which I taught) and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God; along with a couple more recent mysteries by African American men: Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress and Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist.

One of the great pleasures of the year for me was my participation in an NEH Summer Institute at Washington University on the New Negro Renaissance in America, 1919-1941. The voluminous reading for those three weeks was great preparation for my class as well.

I read some great books analyzing race in America—Cornel West’s Race Matters, Derrick Bell’s fascinating And We Are Not Saved, and the delightful Best African American Essays collections of 2009 and 2010—along with some works of African American history—David Levering Lewis’s When Harlem Was in Vogue (rather tedious), Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters (fantastic) and Pillar of Fire (unexpectedly not fantastic), and Isabel Wilkerson’s highly and justifiably praised The Warmth of Other Suns, about the Great Migration.

In addition to works of African American history, I also read some works that one might label primary sources: the anthology Ain’t But a Place, an illuminating compendium of African American writings about St. Louis, from slavery times to the recent past; Richard Wright’s 12 Million Black Voices, a remarkable first-person plural account of the African American experience; essays by James Baldwin; and the most famous works by two towering African American figures: Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery and W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk, both of which I’ll probably teach excerpts from in next year’s incarnation of the class.

Today’s the first day of Christmas break, and having finished The Warmth of Other Suns yesterday, I’m looking ahead to my vacation reading. For one, I’m planning on catching up on some New Yorker fiction. In addition, I’m looking forward to reading a book called Stepping Over the Color Line: African American Students in White Suburban Schools, which I read about in this article, and which seems like it will provide something I’ve been searching for for some time: a close analysis of school desegregation in St. Louis.

Sunday, December 5, 2010


In the midst of this post, Andrew Sullivan offers a nice tally of what Barack Obama has accomplished in the first half of his first term:

prevented a second great depression, rescued Detroit, bailed out the banks, pitlessly isolated Tehran's regime, exposed Netanyahu, decimated al Qaeda's mid-level leadership in Pakistan and Afghanistan, withdrawn troops fron Iraq on schedule, gotten two Justices on the Supreme Court, cut a point or two off the unemployment rate with the stimulus, seen real wages for those employed grow, presided over a stock market boom and record corporate profits, and maneuvered a GOP still intoxicated with failed ideology to become more and more wedded to white, old evangelicals led by Sarah Palin. And did I mention universal health insurance - the holy grail for Democrats for decades?