Moonglow, A Fictional Memoir

I loved Michael Chabon’s most recent book, Moonglow. I am also a big fan of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, one of my favorite books. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001.

I liken his writing to a Wes Anderson movie. Both have their own particular style, but if you like the style, you love the creative output of the author or writer/director.

Moonglow’s storyline is complex and weaves back and forth between the past and the present. The main character’s grandfather, a curmudgeonly, silent type, is dying and in his Dilaudid haze he has become verbose, confessionally talking to his grandson, one Mike Chabon, telling him never-before heard stories about his childhood, his adventures during World War II, and how he met his wife, the author’s grandmother.

The novel is essentially a series of love stories that build upon one another like Russian nesting dolls. Mike Chabon is the novel’s narrator, but he is not Michael Chabon, the book’s author. Mike is the one filling in the gaps left out from his grandfather’s stories, packing a myriad of footnotes, adding the tangents which serve as spicy addenda to the books many pages.

The grandparents are two broken people (but broken in different ways) who find one another and fall head over heels in love with one another. Their marriage is passionate and faithful, but the grandmother suffers from horrible nightmares and mental illness, a remnant from her experience as a hidden refugee in France during the war.

All of the characters have secrets that they hide from one another. The backward and forward lurching of the story builds to the pivotal explanation toward the end of the book, slyly inserted into the narrative almost as an afterthought.

This complex, layered book drew me in and had me spellbound. The phrasing is marvelous, so effervescent some pages sparkle.  I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough, yet I didn’t want it to end. If Chabon is your thing, dig into this one soon. Savor it.




More Escapist Fiction


Still in despair by our country’s current political environment and horrified by the catastrophes unfolding in Washington, D.C., I am seeking relief (or hiding) in various ways. I tried floating in a epsom salt float tank and loved it…more about that later. I am getting back into yoga and grateful to have so many good studio options in and near Evanston. Most of all, I am reading a lot and taking advantage of my EPL card.

In quick succession I enjoyed these three mysteries and a tear-jerker: The Dry by Jane Harper, a first-time novelist; The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware; and The Wonder by Emma Donoghue, author of the wonderful and highly acclaimed, Room; and A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman.

The Dry takes place in a section of Australia that has not seen any rainfall for two years. The land and everything on it is withering..cracking..dying. Crops won’t grow and livestock can’t survive. Financial ruin is everywhere. As the book opens, Aaron Falk, a federal agent, is en route to the funeral of his high school friend Luke. Aaron hasn’t been home in twenty years and is determined to spend as little time as possible in town, counting down the hours until he can leave without seeming rude. It seems Luke snapped due to the impending loss of his farm and shot his wife and young son, sparing only his infant daughter, before killing himself.

Twenty years ago Luke provided an alibi for Aaron when a young woman was reported missing. This mutual friend later turned up dead. Despite Luke’s insistence that Aaron and he were together, town gossip blamed Aaron for the death and effectively chased him and his father out of town. Luke’s father knows the boys lied and asks Aaron to stay in town a few extra days to see if Aaron can help clear Luke’s name. In addition to the unrelenting heat, the gossip and cliques within the community add their own type of oppressiveness, where the past is never really over and everyone seems to know everybody else’s business. The story builds logically bit by bit over the course of a week until its dramatic and combustible conclusion. The Dry is a fun read, perfect for a beach vacation or long flight.

The Woman in Cabin 10  is a psychological mystery. Lo, a travel writer, is under tremendous stress and possible PTSD due to a recent attack during a break-in at her home and later, an argument and possible split with her boyfriend. The timing of both events could not have been worse as she is scheduled to leave in two days on a highly anticipated press junket aboard a luxury yacht trip en route to see the Aurora Borealis. The break-in has left her unable to sleep without alcohol to blot out her nightmares. In her boozy haze the first night out to sea, Lo is convinced she hears and sees a woman being tossed overboard from the cabin next to hers. She notifies the ship’s staff, but the room is unoccupied and no one is unaccounted for among the ship’s staff or guests. The ship’s security officer politely but firmly dismisses her concerns and suspects she is hallucinating, imagining things because of her recent break-in, hung over or a combination of all of the above. To complicate things further, the WiFi on the ship is not working and Lo is unable to receive or to send emails. Is she going crazy? Paranoid? Is there a secret killer on the ship that only she sees? Combine fuzzy memories, a disoriented sense of time and personal space, and ample self-doubt for a toxic mix. Similar in some ways to The Girl on the Train, The Woman in Cabin 10 is a challenging whodunit with a surprise twist ending.

If you liked the tension and insular world of Room, I think you’ll enjoy The Wonder. Emma Donoghue has created another tight, restrictive environment, this time in 1859 Ireland. For the past four months, since her eleventh birthday, Anna has stopped eating save for a few teaspoons of water each day. A deeply religious young girl, Anna’s family and neighbors believe she is a living miracle in their midst. The local priest has doubts and wants to be certain Anna is a true miracle, so a group of townspeople hires two nurses to watch over Anna at all times for two weeks to determine if she is sneaking food or, as Anna maintains, living off of “manna from heaven.” One of the nurses is a young widow, trained by Florence Nightingale, and determined to uncover the scheme. Much to her surprise, Lib is charmed by Anna and believes her to be sincere, if not misguided.

Despite 24-hour surveillance, Lib and other nurse, Sister Michael, are unable to find hidden food or determine how Anna might be getting any sustenance. All outward physical signs show that Anna is slowly dying, yet no one — not her physician, her priest, her parents, her cousin who lives with them, or the other nurse, Sister Michael — is doing anything to actively save Anna from certain death. Why is the child willingly starving herself? And how can Lib save Anna before being run out of town, since Lib’s ‘by the book’ manner and irreligious approach have already provoked the ire of the local priest, the family doctor, and Anna’s parents. The Wonder is a story of love, commitment, and redemption. claustrophobic at times, the intensity builds as Anna deteriorates, but the end is nothing short of miraculous.

I know I’m late to the party about A Man Called Ove as it’s been in print since 2012, but better late than never. Ove is a curmudgeon. He is almost mean and very rigid, and he is determined to commit suicide to end his troubles. Thing is, his plans keep getting waylaid by the people around him…boisterous neighbors, a pushy cat, fainting commuters…there is no end to the interruptions! But little by little, his icy heart starts to thaw. This is his story. I loved this book — I laughed out loud more than once and was charmed to tears as the story of Ove’s life was slowly revealed. If you need a feel-good book to read or give, this is the one.

Happy reading!

Social Disconnect

I first heard about J.D. Vance’s book, Hillbilly Elegy, from my Aunt Sue, who had read it as part of the syllabus for a college course she audited last fall. It was November, shortly after the election, and I was still in a fog of disbelief about the results. She recommended it as essential reading and promised it would explain a lot.

A few weeks later I was browsing for a gift in a small book store and asked the owner if she had noticed any differences in her customers’ purchasing habits since the election. She acknowledged that, indeed there were changes. In the days immediately after the election, there was hardly any store traffic. No one was in the mood to shop; people were hunkering down. But after a few days, things got back to normal — whatever that is — and she had two types of requests: non-fiction (explain the election, how did this happen?) or fiction (get me out of here, this can’t be happening).  In the former category, two books were in hot demand, White Trash: The 400-Year Old Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg and Hillbilly Elegy. 

In Isenberg’s White Trash, “the poor are always with us,” and labeling the underclass of poor whites implies “an imposed inheritance” that almost invariably prevents them from escape and encourages demonization if not blame. For them, the American dream of upward mobility is largely “unobtainable.”

First known as “waste people,” and later “white trash,” marginalized Americans were stigmatized for their inability to be productive, to own property, or to produce healthy and upwardly mobile children–the sense of uplift on which the American dream is predicated. The American solution to poverty and social backwardness was not what we might expect. Well into the twentieth century, expulsion and sterilization sounded rational to those who wished to reduce the burden of “loser” people on the larger economy. (p. xv, White Trash)

The book is long, dense, and at times, tedious. Isenberg weaves the history of how the poor in this country have been treated and viewed as expendable fodder as far back as the 1500s when the land was a colonial outpost of Great Britain and a dumping ground for undesirables. There are three main themes: the importance of our country’s rural past; the pervasive role class hierarchy plays in the United States; and how land ownership and class are connected, in that “the worst classes were seen as extrusions of the worst land: scrubby, barren, and swampy wasteland.” By the time these themes reach the likes of Honey Boo Boo and the current economic struggles of the lower rungs of the 99%, I was pretty discouraged although much better informed.

Hillbilly Elegy is a memoir of an unusual childhood. J.D. Vance grew up in the Rust Belt of Ohio with deep family ties in the hills of eastern Kentucky. He was raised by his grandparents; his mother had substance abuse problems throughout his early years and he nearly failed out of high school…except he didn’t, because of the love and support of a few people and a fair amount of luck. He graduated high school, joined the Marines, served in Iraq, graduated from Ohio State in two years, and graduated from Yale Law School. He made it out and he made it big.

The majesty of  Vance’s story is learning why, amidst such a chaotic start, he did not give up on himself and why he did not give in to the despair, pessimism, and cynicism all around him. He describes growing up in deep poverty with familial violence as a norm. Years later he learns that the yelling, fighting, and abuse he and his sister experienced had a name–“adverse childhood experiences”–and that children with multiple ACEs are statistically more likely to experience adverse health and behavioral issues. He is unabashedly loyal to his family and loves them unconditionally, but he is clear about the bad choices his family and neighbors have made and the impact those choices have had on their lives and on the lives of the children in their care.

Vance despairs about the rampant drug addictions tearing through his hometown, and how unprepared its residernts are to confront a knowledge-based economy. He assigns both fault and credit to certain aspects of government programs, family decisions, and cultural norms. Vance doesn’t pretend to speak for all of his kin or neighbors, but he does present a portrait unfamiliar to many Americans and one that is helpful to understand. He writes with objective emotion and sensitivity; he is not bitter or vengeful, and surprisingly forgiving, accepting, and understanding of his mother. He recognizes he is lucky to have had loving grandparents who instilled him with good values and self-confidence and good mentors who believed in him and taught him about things he was never exposed to at home.

Neither White Trash nor Hillbilly Elegy are the definitive answer about how and why our country elected this president, but they are important parts of the conversation. I recommend them.






Pick Your Tree Carefully


Lab Girl by Hope Jahren is a beautifully written memoir about work, love, friendship, illness, and the tenacity female scientists need to succeed. This is a brave book; it is raw and honest and overall inspiring. I recommend it enthusiastically.


After reading Lab Girl, it is impossible to look at any tree or even a leaf without begrudging respect for everything it took for that respective piece of vegetation to venture into the world and live.

A seed knows how to wait. Most seeds wait for at least a year before starting to grow; a cherry seed can wait for a hundred years with no problem. What exactly each seed is waiting for is only known to that seed. Some unique trigger-combination of temperature-moisture-light and many other things is required to convince a seed to jump off the deep end and take its chance–to take its one and only chance to grow.

Jahren tells of growing up in a family that rarely talked and barely emoted. (“The vast emotional distances between the individual members of a Scandinavian family are forged early and reinforced daily.”) Her relationship with her mother was strained, but she drew comfort and strength from her scientist father whom she idolized.

I grew up in my father’s laboratory and played beneath the chemical benches until I was tall enough to play on them. My father taught forty-two years’ worth of introductory physics and earth science in that laboratory, nestled within a community college deep in rural Minnesota; he loved his lab, and it was a place that my brothers and I loved also.

Jahren is passionate about science and driven to succeed. She describes the obstacles female scientists often encounter — narrow-mindedness, failure to be taken seriously and be included, prejudice, sexual harassment — and how she barreled through and worked harder than anyone else to prove she belonged. Belong she does, and she has succeeded magnificently: three Fulbright Awards, one of only four scientists (and the only woman, natch) to have been awarded both of the Young Investigator Medals given in the earth sciences, tenured professor, and kick-ass writer.

There is a special skill to writing about science. It’s a secret language to those of us on the outside and one has to be especially adept to explain what’s taking place without losing the reader in complex jargon. Jahren is gifted with luminous prose when describing scientific experiments, the rhythms of efficient soil sampling, and proper laboratory procedures. I fell in love with her as she struggled and persevered, and cheered her professional and personal milestones. The passages in which she meets and falls in love with her husband, and regales us with tales of work adventures and friendship with her lab partner, Bill, testify to the depth of her feelings and the fullness of her heart.

She also wrestles mightily with manic depressive illness. Her raw candor about its effects on her life are mesmerizing and heartbreaking. I was awestruck by her strength, grit, and bravery, especially in the section where she describes the impact stopping her medication for 26 weeks (she was pregnant) had on her life. Thankfully what she had to endure worked successfully and her son was born completely healthy. She is fortunate: she has a true partner in her husband, who cared for her and advocated for the medical care she needed; she has access to the best medical care in the world; she has financial resources. That Jahren is aware of and appreciates these gifts make her triumph all the sweeter.

The Jahren Lab is in Norway now but you can keep up with her on her blog and be on the lookout for random op-ed pieces in The New York Times.







Thoughts About Death and Life: When Breath Becomes Air

I began to realize that coming in such close contact with my own mortality had changed both nothing and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live. (pp. 131-132)

Bibliophiles know about When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi: the heartbreaking memoir of a highly gifted (degrees from Stanford University, University of Cambridge, Yale School of Medicine) neurosurgeon and writer who was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer at the age of 35, only months away from completing his surgical training. The book is dedicated to his infant daughter, the child he and his wife, also a doctor, chose to have after his diagnosis.

Of course the book is sad and poignant for many reasons: first and foremost, because his daughter will grow up without her father. His wife, whom he loved deeply, is now a widow. He was incredibly talented and on the cusp of realizing the pinnacle of his professional training. Given his expertise, he could have helped many more people. Now all that is for naught. His premature end is both tragic and cosmically wasteful. And yet his life was rich and full of meaning.

When Breath Becomes Air is a brave book. Death hovers on almost every page, but the book is not macabre. It’s beautifully written, and at times, even profound in what Kalanithi observes; his perspective shifts back and forth between writer as doctor and writer as patient. He observes death, is aware of death, even feels the presence of death as a medical student and throughout the stages of his training. He writes about how his training taught him to “actively engage with death” and thus, to “confront the the meaning of life.” Being a doctor meant assuming mortal responsibility, and it was a responsibility he embraced forcefully and with passion. Kalanithi was a man who ran toward challenges.

Near the end of his life, contemplating the brief overlap of his life with that of his daughter’s, he muses about what wisdom he can leave her. The message he wrote is this:

When you come to one of the many moments in life where you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing. (p. 199)


The idea of ‘providing a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world’ is one of the book’s central ideas. As Kalanithi’s disease progresses and various drugs and treatments he is pursuing lose their effectiveness, his options narrow and the time he has left dwindles. He mourns the losses of his life, of dreams not realized, children he and his wife would not have together, of not growing old with the one you love. But he accepts these hard truths and strives to make the most of his remaining time, energy, and concentration. He labors to complete this book, to leave some tangible record of his thoughts, before the cancer overtakes him.

For each of us, the idea of what we have meant to the world, is unique and intensely personal.   Kalanithi made his life matter. He made a difference to those around him and touched many, mostly strangers, with his thoughts about making the most of his remaining time. A teacher and researcher to the very end, he found ways to contribute at Stanford even when he could no longer operate or treat patients. You will think about this compact book long after you complete it.

Remembering Oliver Sacks

I’ve been a fan of Oliver Sacks‘ ever since reading The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat and An Anthropologist on Mars. Dr. Sacks was a masterful storyteller; his TED description lists him as a neurological anthropologist. What I loved most about both Sacks’ style and subject matter was how he made science, especially all things medical, both relatable and understandable. The reader did not need to be an expert to empathize with each compelling tale.

His two most recent books, published in the year prior to his death on August 30, 2015, are Gratitude and On the Move, and they couldn’t be more different. Gratitude is a compact reflection of what it means to live a worthwhile life. The four essays that make up this tiny book were previously published in the The New York Times; each essay is powerful and thought-provoking. The writer is at peace and satisfied with the life he has lived.

On the Move is a memoir that expounds upon Sacks’ growth and development into the person he became. Whereas his earlier memoir Uncle Tungsten recounts his childhood, family, and love for the periodic table, On the Move describes adult successes and failures, both professionally and personally, from high school through a year or two before the end of his life.

The instant the librarian handed me the book, I did a double take examining the photo on the book jacket. The virile and handsome man on the motorcycle seems light years away from the grandfatherly looking and kind man I thought I knew. How did one become the other?  The journey spanning sixty or so years makes up this brave and honest book. He shares painful subjects: his mother’s hurtful comment when learning that her son had homosexual desires; unrequited loves; drug addiction; professional failures. I never imagined or knew he was painfully shy or that his approach toward treating his patients was considered radical and untraditional.

Sacks’ knowledge base was grounded in philosophy, nineteenth century medical histories, and his fascination with the world around him. He was a geek of the first order. He won a prize while in high school or college and with the money bought a used set of the Oxford English Dictionary…which he then proceeded to read and finish. (A new set today consists of 20 volumes and costs $1,045.)

He was an expert in flora and fauna, animals, geology, words, music, and countless other subjects. He was endlessly curious, but without judgement or fear. He traveled extensively, always documenting his voyages with photographs, notes, and essays. He kept journals religiously from the time he was a young teen, as well as copies of his voluminous correspondence to friends, family, and colleagues all over the world. He loved reading, writing, and learning, and was most comfortable with his own company. He swam nearly every day; water was where he did his best thinking.

Sacks’ brain was big. He revised his work constantly and gave his editors agita because he insisted on adding seemingly countless footnotes. His mind was expansive and his desire to share, to let all of us–his readers, his fans, and acolytes–in on the riches he saw and experienced, at times made the books long or even tedious. Yet reading about his adult life and the experiences that shaped him, I am convinced that his sharing this knowledge was an act of love.

I wish I had had a chance to meet and speak with him. His TED talk on visual hallucinations complements his fascinating books.


Superbosses: How Exceptional Leaders Master the Flow of Talent

I’ve been earning a paycheck since I was a teenager. I’ve worked in all types of places for all types of people, and learned valuable lessons in each situation. What makes one place or experience better than others?  Fulfilling work, a sense of accomplishment, and a decent salary are all important, but are they enough?  For some, the chance to work for or with an industry visionary or “superboss” drives the decision.

Sidney Finkelstein, the Steven Roth Professor of Management at Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College and the director of Tuck’s Center for Leadership, just released his latest book, Superbosses, the culmination of more than 10 years of research and 200 interviews. One of the conclusions of this fascinating book is superbosses exist in almost every industry. Their personal styles differ, but they all share common traits and behaviors.

One important behavior of a superboss, according to Finkelstein, is how they “identify, motivate, coach and leverage” talented new associates. They build collegial teams, almost pseudo families, yet encourage competition to push people beyond their limits. And when their successful protégés are ready to leave the fold, the superboss is supportive and encouraging. Mentor and mentee part on good terms and stay in touch, regularly exchanging prospects, leads, ideas, and industry gossip. The mentee–now a proven success in his or her own right–is still in the orbit of the superboss, whose influence continues to expand exponentially.

What are some of the personal characteristics that superbosses share? According to Finkelstein, there are five:

  • Superbosses all possess extreme confidence, even fearlessness, when it comes to furthering their own agendas and ideas.
  • …all superbosses share competitiveness…they thrive on it, they seek it out, and they create it.
  • …a character trait shared by superbosses–and one central to their innovation–is their imaginative nature. Superbosses are visionaries.
  • A fourth characteristic that superbosses universally manifest is integrity…strict adherence to a core vision or sense of self.
  • A fifth and final attribute of superbosses, a natural extension of integrity, is authenticity.

I recommend this book as a valuable resource to anyone who is interested in how organizations operate and how to motivate others. Finkelstein believes the “superboss effect” is teachable, and that any of us could learn and adopt what they do to develop world-class talent.

If you manage others, compare yourself to these superbosses to see if you share any of the same traits and what you can do to perhaps become more like them. If you work for someone else, ask yourself if you work for a superboss. If you do not currently work for a superboss but want to, who in your industry is setting the bar for innovation and talent? Where do you need to be to grow the most, to be the best in your field?

Superbosses are among us even if they are not mentioned by name in this immensely readable book. Finkelstein’s Superbosses provides a roadmap to find them.


Strong Women

Jeff_combined photosLast week I read Margo Jefferson’s memoir, Negrolandin anticipation of an April book discussion at the Evanston Public Library. The discussion can’t come soon enough; I am eager to talk to someone–anyone–about this book. Here is how the book begins:

Negroland is my name for a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty. Children in Negroland were warned that few Negroes enjoyed privilege or plenty and that most whites would be glad to see them returned to indigence, deference, and subservience. Children there were taught that most other Negroes ought to be emulating us when too many of them (out of envy or ignorance) went on behaving in ways that encouraged racial prejudice.

Too many Negroes, it was said, showed off the wrong things: their loud voices, their brash and garish ways; their gift for popular music and dance, for sports rather than the humanities and sciences. Most white people were on the lookout, we were told, for what they called these basic racial traits. But most white people were also on the lookout for a too-bold display by us of their kind of accomplishments, their privilege and plenty, what they considered their racial traits. You were never to act undignified in their presence, but neither were you to act flamboyant.

I related to part of this underlying tension. The town where I grew up from the age of five until I graduated high school was a small suburb about an hour northeast of Philadelphia. We didn’t know anyone when we moved there, and while there were other Jewish families in our neighborhood, they weren’t prevalent. The nearest synagogue was 20 minutes away by car. In elementary school, more than once I was the only one not celebrating Christmas, and I felt that distinction keenly.

It’s not as if I wanted to celebrate Christmas or was embarrassed to celebrate Chanukah. I did not like was the scrutiny of ‘otherness,’ of feeling like an exotic exhibit outside the safety and security of my home. Otherness often felt isolating, more peculiar than special. Margo experienced a similar flavor of otherness as a black girl throughout her childhood.

Body image is a struggle for many women, and Margo navigated issues dealing with the shade of her skin tone, hair care, and thick lensed glasses due to poor eyesight. She excelled academically, athletically, and musically. Even with all of these accomplishments–and she writes of the period before she won the Pulitzer Prize!–I think this must have been a difficult book to write. She mined her psyche as well as her memories and the memories of her friends and relatives. She is brutally honest about opportunities provided to her and her sister as a result of her parents’ education, and equally candid about the limitations they faced because of racism. The book is not bitter, merely revealing in heart-wrenching detail.

After Negroland, Beyoncé’s new song and video, Formation, suddenly seemed very relevant. I don’t know if I would have thought about the song and accompanying video in any depth except for the kerfuffle surrounding the video’s unannounced presence the day before the Super Bowl. I watched and listened, then did it again. I read about the critics’ and public’s reactions to each, and then watched again.

Brava Beyoncé! Already scrutinized and reviewed countless times, the video offers a proud and unapologetic stance on being a powerful black woman. She is proud of who she is and where she came from. Beyoncé ties in images of and references to New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina, the Black Lives Matter movement and more. (Many of the references I did not understand until I read some of the commentary about the video. Read one here, here, and here. There are plenty of others.) She is a woman in control of her career and her personal life. She revels in the power and friendship of sisterhood. She is proud of her body. She does not shy away from making money and the power that comes with an elevated economic status.

Beyoncé is not apologizing for anything. Good for her. Negroland tells of dreams aborted or postponed; Beyoncé is proactively making her dreams happen. Knowing dreams can come true is good news for all of us.







Paris Dreams

Overseas or international travel can be a wonderful respite, a well-needed jolt of excitement, and an invigorating learning experience. Whether for work or for pure pleasure, once past the hassles of airport security, it always feels to me like a new adventure, a present meant to be opened.

It has been a while since I’ve travelled abroad, but I have wonderful memories of those countries I have visited, including Canada, France, Italy, Israel, Spain, Nepal, Chile, and Argentina. France was one of the first countries to entice me. When I finally arrived there during the vacation between fall and spring semesters of my junior year in undergraduate school, it did not disappoint. Subsequent visits cemented the adoration despite my feeble attempts to speak French with any elegance or fluency.

Francophiles will rejoice with a new memoir entitled My Paris Dream, written by Kate Betts, former editor of Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and Time. It recounts her experiences as a young woman finding her way in Paris: renting a room from a young family (the perfect way to learn French slang), looking for work, making friends, falling in love. It tells how her hard work paid off and her writing caught the eye of John Fairchild, publisher of Women’s Wear Daily, and what it was like to work for him during the 1980’s when she met practically anyone and everyone of significance within the fashion industry.

I especially liked Betts’ candid reflections about how she behaved, and not always with the poise and sensitivity she knew she was capable of demonstrating. She matured a lot during the years captured in the span of the book, and she is direct about what she could have done better. For young people, especially young women, pursuing a dream and trying to figure out what they want out of life, this candid self-reflection is welcome. She struggled, made mistakes, and learned. Despite the so-called glamour of her journalistic pursuits, she never lost her grip on reality and eventually blossomed in a way that one can only admire.


Another French valentine is Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik. Written in the late 1990’s and published in 2000, it recounts a Francophile’s impressions of the City of Light while navigating daily life and first-time parenthood. The writing is delicious–more nuanced and detailed than My Paris Dream, but just as real.

February 17 is National Café au Lait Day, but you don’t need to wait until then to savor your Paris dream. Purchase or borrow a copy of both books, settle in to one of Evanston’s many coffee shops, and delve into your own mini vacance.  It’s a terrific way to ward off the chill and transport yourself.








Whistling Vivaldi: Listening to Dr. Claude Steele

One of the books I read as a pre-teen was Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin. Published in 1961, the author describes how, with the help of a doctor, he temporarily darkened the color of his skin to “pass” as a black man, and traveled throughout the segregated South keeping a journal of his experiences. The book is based upon his journal entries; a BlackLikeMe movie of the same title was produced in 1964.

I thought about this book recently, mainly because it creates empathy between the author and black men in a way that even the most liberal white person could not fathom. There is something about walking in another person’s shoes that bridges the divide, however unintentional, between sympathy, compassion and awareness to truly “getting it.”

It is with that frame of mind that I am absorbing the protests and demonstrations that took place across the country after the Staten Island, New York grand jury refused to indict the police officers responsible for choking Eric Garner to death. Layer atop this tragedy stories about black men driving who are disproportionately stopped by police for investigatory reasons (“driving while black“). Add worried comments and questions from parents of black children, especially boys, about how they drill into their sons how they need to walk, talk and be when around white people, and especially around law enforcement officers.

This is a tragedy of national proportions, and not just for black families. It affects all of us, and until all of us take responsibility for it and work for positive change, it will continue. So with hope in my heart and the need to learn, I was eager to attend the program sponsored by Family Action Network; program partners included ten local schools and not for profit groups. Although long scheduled, Dr. Steele’s presence this week was a welcome relief of good timing. A video of the entire program is available on FAN’s YouTube channel.

The Evanston Township High School auditorium, packed to near capacity with approximately twelve hundred people, included students, teachers, parents and concerned townspeople. All eagerly waited to hear Claude Steele, Ph.D., current Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost at the University of California, Berkeley and author of the groundbreaking work, Whistling Vivaldi and Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us.Whistling_Vivaldi_-_both_covers


Dr. Steele divided the lecture into three sections: identification of the problem; an explanation of why stereotypes are a threat; suggestions and remedies for going forward. He was promoting the book, but more importantly he was promoting his life’s work of research and experience upon which the book is based. The problem Dr. Steele found, almost by accident, was that minority students, whether they were African-American college students or college women (of any race) studying advanced math, received lower grades compared to their white male counterparts even if their SAT scores at the time of admission were identical. Further, the same problem could be demonstrated in nearly all situations where any minority group was under-represented.

Once Dr. Steele’s research identified the tendency for students to underperform if their abilities are negatively stereotyped, his team sought to understand why this occurred. They determined that in situations where a negative stereotype looms, there is so much anxiety regarding how the qualified–but still minority–student feels about the situation that performance declines. The expectations of society were affecting the interpretation of personal experience. This was the stereotype threat. Past success did not protect the students regardless of how well qualified they were, and caring about performing well in an area where “your” group is seen negatively by “society” only increased the pressure and contributed to the under-performance. And because the situation was so sensitive, often times it was not discussed (avoidance), thereby making it worse.

Dr. Steele presented several video clips showing examples of how contextual expectations affected performance. One clip was from the movie 8 Mile; another was a segment from excerpts from Jane Elliott’s lesson in discrimination commonly referred to as the “Blue-Eyed/Brown-Eyed Test.” Dr. Steele pointed out the social cues that reinforce discrimination and how a teacher’s instructions can make all the difference–both positively and negatively. Although a teacher could never get away with conducting an experiment like the Blue-Eyed/Brown-Eyed Test today, the lessons it teaches are still relevant today and just as controversial as they were in 1968.

Fortunately, further research demonstrated the effectiveness of remedies to fix and improve the situations and change the outcomes. Each of these behaviors and changes can “lift” the stereotypes.

  • Be aware the impact of instructions and how they affect academic performance.
  • Learn how to change the interpretation of events so they are less personalized.
  • Practice identifying how the other person might feel.
  • Create new habits (the 10,000 hour rule, or practice makes perfect) and maintain those habits to make changes in ability.
  • Identify role models for guidance.
  • Know how to recognize the signs and tendencies of the stereotypes communicated and structure the world at hand to compensate for it.
  • Develop a vocabulary and concepts to discuss these difficult issues and not hide from them.
  • Recognize the role of context within the domain.

It was a fascinating evening. There was so much good will in the room, so much feeling of ‘we must do better’ the sentiment seemed palpable. I think most people left the auditorium feeling optimistic. With guidance and awareness, we can all be the change.