Chronicle of Summer Reading

PicMonkey CollageIt was a busy summer of teaching, editing, weddings, overgrown zucchinis, crowded swimming holes, and sleepless nights without air-conditioning. Somehow I got quite a bit of reading time, whether on the MAX to work or on the river bank. Our uninsulated old house was often hotter than it was outdoors, so we found ourselves escaping to the somewhat cooler air near the river.

IMG_3853I also confess to reading Half the Sky, (Nicolas Kristof & Sheryl WuDunn’s 2009 survey on the status of women in developing countries) in a canoe.

I really could not put it down. It’s a brilliant argument for the elevation of women worldwide as the human rights issue of our time. It highlights the many strides women and their allies have already made toward reducing maternal mortality, female genital cutting, trafficking, and HIV, and increasing women’s opportunities in education and employment. Well-crafted and personal, the book focuses on specific women in Vietnam, Cambodia, India, Congo, and elsewhere, putting real human faces and stories of hope to otherwise cold and dismal statistics.

I closed the book feeling inspired to learn more and do more for women not only for women around the world, but right here in my own community. It’s interesting to note that in 2014, the maternal mortality rate actually rose in the United States, equaling that of developing countries like Afghanistan. Research suggests that this is due to the fact that a huge percentage of American women enter pregnancy without health insurance, and without access to health care. T.R. Reid, author of The Healing of America, writes: “Thousands of times every month in the U.S.A., women show up at an emergency room nine months pregnant, seven cm. dilated, and they’ve never had a pre-natal visit. Those are the women and babies we lose after childbirth.”

I was so impressed with Half the Sky that I picked up Kristof & WuDunn’s previous book, Thunder from The East: A Portrait of Rising Asia (Knopf 2000), and then Peter Hessler’s phenomenal Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China, which also proved impossible to leave behind on camping trips. It is a wonderfully meandering and dynamic look at China at the first of the 21st century, when Hessler was a news correspondent in Beijing. Similar to Kristof & Wudunn, Hessler approaches a gigantic topic through the perspectives of the particular individuals that topic affects. Hessler weaves ancient Chinese history, linguistics, politics, and economics through his engaging narrative about his own experience and that of his friends. As an English teacher, I’m excited to pick up his previous book, River Town, about his 1996 Peace Corps term teaching English in rural China.

I attempted to read Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, because of an interview with artist Daniela Molnar, and because of my interest in developing my consciousness as a teacher in a global work environment. I got about halfway through before I admitted defeat. Sometimes it’s just not the right time for a book– maybe too soon or too late. In my case, I think it was too soon. I need more experience under my belt, or perhaps a primer for some of the dense theories Freire gets into. At the time, I was also looking for more immediate insight into classroom psychology, which I found in Frank Smith’s little treatise on industrial education, The Book of Learning and Forgetting. A fellow teacher recommended it and I whipped through it, stunned by the remnants, in language itself, of the legacy of militarism in the history of modern education. It’s a fascinating read.

Second Person Singular was one of those spontaneous choices made mid-aisle in the library. The grammar teacher in me was drawn to the title first. Translated from the original Hebrew, it’s something of a mystery novel set in modern-day Jerusalem and told from the perspective of an Arab Israeli. It tells the story of two men– one a wealthy lawyer, the other a directionless photographer– who are strangers to each other and yet share the same confusing search for identity in a land where that search is rife with politics and peril.

Earlier in the summer, there was Burqas, Baseball, and Apple Pie: Being Muslim in America, a passionate look at what it means for one American family to embrace their Muslim identity post-9/11. I found it thought-provoking and engaging, though I also thought it lost steam toward the end, when it began to repeat many of the previous chapters’ points. Idliby’s previous book, The Faith Club, has been on my reading list for a long time, and I hope to pick it up later this fall.


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