Navigating the Void

Ian blackI’m going to begin my review of Ian Rankin’s masterful Black and Blue by doing something I’ve tried to refrain from doing lately: bitching about the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).  For the uninitiated – in other words, readers of my reviews who don’t know what I’m up to in my life off the computer – my problems with the CCSS aren’t some Glenn Beckian, “Obama’s a secret Muslim so let’s cancel AP US History” goofabout.  Nope: my problems with it are manifold, very real, and based in the twenty years I’ve spent in the classroom as, first, a high school English teacher and, currently, a teacher educator.  I’m not going to bore you to tears by illustrating all of them here, but what I am going to do is touch on how Rankin’s Rebus mystery series, and this book in particular, do a bang-up job of putting the lie to a couple of the CCSS’ central tenets.

This is the eighth novel to feature Detective Inspector John Rebus and the fourth one I’ve read since I began the 21st Century Bookshelf Deprivation Project, but this is actually the first time I’ve written one of these lengthy reviews on one of them.  So, to catch you up before I plunge headfirst into the CCSS mire, D.I. Rebus is a rumpled alcoholic loner who’s largely been a failure in his personal life because of his tendency to obsess over the cases he’s assigned.  The series takes place in and around Edinburgh, Scotland, and, rather than emulate the largely dopey tendency of American mystery series to feature a killer of the week in each book (see Sandford, Patterson, Deaver, et. al.), Rankin’s series is deeply Scottish and is concerned more centrally with mysteries that plumb the depths of British identity.  Rankin is, for my money, the best mystery writer working today (even better than my beloved Mo Hayder).

What does any of this have to do with the CCSS?  Two things, which I’ll take in turn – and I promise I’ll be talking about Black and Blue soon.

David Coleman, the architect of the English Language Arts standards and self-acknowledged unqualified non-teacher, is on record as believing students shouldn’t be encouraged to bring their prior knowledge to bear on a text, focusing instead only on what they can learn from “the four corners of the page.”  The most asinine example of this is his series of lessons on teaching the Gettysburg Address, which he believes should be done without sharing the cultural and historical context surrounding the delivery of Lincoln’s most famous speech.  At this point I invite you to think of a time when you haven’t  brought your prior knowledge and experience with you when you read.  Is it even possible?  When I read I’m constantly holding the text up against what I already know about the world, drawing on that prior knowledge as a way of illuminating the story (or essay or article or whatever).  It seems even more important for younger, less confident readers to see this as a viable strategy.  If nothing else, it lets them know what gaps in their understanding they need to fill.  If they’re not engaging in this sort of metacognitive thought, it’s unlikely they’ll get what they need from whatever it is they’re reading.

Which brings me back to Ian Rankin.  His Rebus series is not especially well-known in the States.  You can find a smattering of his stuff at your local Barnes & Noble, but he’s not exactly a name up there in recognition with John Patterson (which I’d argue isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but that’s an essay for another time).  I chalk up a lot of this anonymity to a lack of cultural knowledge.  As I mentioned earlier, Rankin’s series is inextricably linked to its Scottish setting and characters, and he doesn’t really hold the reader’s hand.  If you pick up one of his books and don’t have at least a passing familiarity with Scotland, British government, the geography and economy of the U.K., Scots slang, etc., etc., you’re going to have a tough go of it.  In other words, if you don’t have the requisite prior knowledge to draw on, the four corners of the page aren’t going to do much to help you out.  Because I’m an unrepentant (and nerdy – oh so nerdy) Anglophile, I’ve got a decent understanding of what I need to make sense of the story, and part of the fun of it (for me, at least) is putting that understanding into play.  It’s crucial to my enjoyment of the series, just as I’m sure the prior knowledge you bring to your favorite genres is crucial to your own.  But David Coleman says it’s not important.  And in that he’s dead wrong.

The second way Black and Blue has some important things to tell us about the deficiencies of the CCSS deals with the way the standards enforce faulty distinctions in text types.  In the great middle school dance that is the CCSS, “informational texts” are the 7th grade boys huddled on one side of the gymnasium and “literary texts” are the girls arrayed on the other side.  If we’re to believe the CCSS, these two groups never touch and never dance – they’re kept artificially apart, probably by David Coleman and a yardstick.  The implication in the standards is that we read literary texts for enjoyment (and also for evisceration, as we examine them for all manner of things adored by teachers and hated by students) and informational texts to learn things.  While I wholeheartedly agree that we should resist the urge to overemphasize efferent readings of texts meant to be read aesthetically, the notion that we don’t learn anything from literary texts is laughable.

Black and Blue illustrates this perfectly.  At the start of the eighth book in the series, Rebus has been drummed out of his previous post because he annoyed the wrong people in Book 7.  Now he’s officially trying to figure out who killed an oil refinery worker and unofficially trying to solve a series of murders that look remarkably like the work of Bible John, a killer operating in the late 1960s.  At the same time, Rebus himself becomes the focus of an internal affairs investigation, thanks to some question marks that exist from a case he and his mentor solved early in his career.  As with all of Rankin’s previous books, it’s intense, nail-biting stuff, twisty-turny and darkly funny.  By this point Rebus practically leaps off the page, a flawed cop who seems all too real, and it’s to Rankin’s credit that he paints both the murder investigations and the internal affairs chess match with the same intensity.  But here’s the thing: Even while I found myself dragged into Rebus’ struggles with alcohol and authority and enjoying Rankin’s way with hard-boiled dialogue, I learned at least three things:

Bible John was a real killer, operating in Glasgow in 1969.  He murdered three women before dropping completely off the radar.

Aberdeen, Scotland became known as the “Oil Capital of Europe” in the mid-1970s, and refineries in the North Sea are still active.

The Shetland Islands have more in common with Scandinavia than with Scotland.  They’re also really windy.

The above bullets are just snapshots of the first three things that came to mind, and there’s more I picked up about each of them than I cared to include here (especially about the lives of workers on oil rigs).  But all of them illustrate the fallacy of keeping informational and literary texts at arm’s length.  We can learn things about the world from novels and short stories and poetry (I know more about 19th Century sailing vessels than I ever wanted to know, thanks to Dan Simmons’ horror novel, The Terror), and we can appreciate the grace and craft of well-written nonfiction (see the beginning of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring for a prime example).

And this is maybe the perfect encapsulation of my problems with the CCSS: they’re too limiting.  They enforce artificial boxes that reduce the study of English Language Arts to categories and formulas and easily assessed terminology.  Rather than help students see the intricate web of relationships that bind history and literature and culture and film and the sciences and art, we compartmentalize all of it and warn students that we should never mix the contents of these boxes we’ve created for them.  It’s a mistake that nevertheless reinforces the questionable CCSS promise of “College and Career Readiness.”  Existing in the world goes beyond just being college and career ready; it’s learning how to navigate the very real complexities that connect each minute of the day to the text.

And, oh yeah– Black and Blue gets 4 out of 5 stars.

*****

Current listening:

R.E.M._-_Automatic_for_the_People

R.E.M. – Automatic for the People (1992)

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Some Things You Don’t Get Back

HotelOne of my most revelatory professional discoveries is also stupidly simple.  It’s this, courtesy of Bob Probst: Reading is a selfish venture.

It is. Of course it is. I’m disappointed in myself for not realizing it earlier, because it’s a principle – probably one of the top two or three – that guides my work with pre-service English teachers, and it would’ve transformed the way I taught English in high school.  I was reminded of the selfishness of the reading enterprise as I made my way through John Irving’s The Hotel New Hampshire, more on which in a couple minutes.

Here’s why it’s important to consider the solipsistic nature of reading, especially for the teachers in my audience.  We read, let’s say 99% of the time, for our own reasons and purposes.  We certainly do this when we read for pleasure, but even professional reading is done for specific personal reasons.  I pick up a novel to get lost in the characters, to savor the author’s use of language, to find myself carried along by plot and conflict; when I conduct research for an article I’m writing, my personal reasons look very different, but the act of scouring journals and other texts for salient information is also highly personal, and how it looks depends on what I’m writing.  In both cases, I’m reading for my reasons, and this holds true for just about everyone, no matter what they read.

School is the only place where people are regularly called on to read for external reasons over which they have no control.  They want to score well on the quiz, write the paper, contribute to the discussion – and the parameters for success on all those activities are probably set by the teacher.   In my experience, students are rarely encouraged to read for their own purposes, which is a direct contradiction of the way people read in the world outside of and beyond school.  We read what interests us – or, if we’re not sure if something interests us, we bring our own experience and knowledge to bear on the text in an effort to make meaning of it.

And so it was for me with The Hotel New Hampshire.

(As a side note, this is, of course, where the Common Core State Standards get reading completely wrong.  In the English standards’  slavish adherence to “the four corners of the page” and standards author David Coleman’s desire that students not access  their prior knowledge and history – essentially asking students to come to the text as a blank slate, which precisely no one ever does – the selfish aspect of reading is left entirely out of the equation.  By focusing completely on providing textual evidence for whatever superficial task the teacher has mandated, student choice is eliminated completely.  We’re asking students to read in complete defiance of what we know about how people read, which means most of the reading tasks they’re asked to complete in school are completely artificial, and with very little transfer to the way we read outside of school. It’s asinine.)

Back to The Hotel New Hampshire, and from here on in I tread lightly.

I enjoyed the book, but it’s problematic for a lot of reasons, touching as it does on anti-Semitism, adolescent sexuality, incest, prostitution, terrorism, and rape, all while somehow being laugh-out-loud funny. It details the exploits of the Berry family – mainly father Win and his children Frank, Franny, John (who narrates the book), and Lily – and the three hotels they own (in New Hampshire, Vienna, and Maine) over the course of twentyish years.  The last item in that lengthy list of the book’s sensitive subjects hangs over everything after Franny is raped in high school by several boys, and it’s tempting to read it as the catalyst for much of what develops later between her and John.

The interesting thing – and what prompted me to think carefully about the inherent selfishness of reading – is how I homed in on Franny’s rape as the book’s defining event even though it isn’t really about rape or misogyny or even, broadly, gender politics.  It’s certainly part of the book’s tapestry, but if I said this was a book about rape, I’d be lying.

And yet.

The treatment of women in our culture has been on my mind lately due to the recent video of the woman being sexually harassed on the streets of New York and the misogynist cowards behind Gamergate and the threats levied against critic Anita Sarkeesian and the necessity of #YesAllWomen.   It’s the Hobby Lobby decision and the GOP’s rejection of equal pay for women and even yesterday’s exceedingly lame conference focusing on “men’s issues” on the campus where I teach. If the autumn of 2014 taught us anything, it’s that men, as the saying goes, are pigs.

So I was already sensitive to this subject, and I felt anything but optimistic about the direction in which I saw Irving heading.  It seems spectacularly foolhardy to think a man has anything worth saying about rape, but to make it one of the key events of a novel had all the makings of a Hindenburg-style disaster.  Because of the way I was already attuned to the issue, I was perhaps more prepared to trace its development than any of the other problems Irving presents us with.

There’s one big reason why I think Irving’s handling of this most sensitive issue ultimately works: it’s nuanced.  That seems counterintuitive when dealing with an issue like rape, so I should probably clarify that it’s the aftermath of the rape that’s nuanced.  The crime itself is never seen as anything other than the brutal act it is, but Irving’s characters resist convenient responses.  Franny, as the victim, somehow manages to be the strongest character in the book – she refuses to see herself as a victim, claiming that while, yes, she was physically assaulted, the rapists never touched her emotionally, never got to, as she puts it, “the me in me” – while continuing to write letters to one of her assailants for years after the attack because she was in love with him at the time.

In Vienna, the family meets Susie, a fellow rape survivor (who also dresses as a bear, which is too convoluted a backstory to discuss here), who says that Franny’s response is  ridiculous.  According to Susie, Franny’s blithe refusal to see herself as a victim indicates a refusal to deal with the crime itself, and by not attacking her assailants at the time, “she sacrificed her own integrity.”  The problem with this view, John the narrator realizes, is the fact that it reflects Susie’s own refusal to acknowledge that everyone is different, everyone processes trauma differently, and that by demanding Franny handle her rape in the same way Susie dealt with hers, she’s robbing Franny of her individual authenticity:

Even before she started talking to Franny, I could see how desperately important this woman’s private unhappiness was to her, and how – in her mind – the only credible reaction to the event of rape was hers. That someone else might have responded differently to a similar abuse only meant to her that the abuse couldn’t possibly have been the same.

‘People are like that,’ Iowa Bob would have said. ‘They need to make their own worst experiences universal. It gives them a kind of support.’

And who can blame them?  It is just infuriating to argue with someone like that; because of an experience that has denied them their humanity, they go around denying another kind of humanity in others, which is the truth of human variety – it stands alongside our sameness.

And this seems to me to be what the book is all about: simultaneously glorying in human difference while also realizing the problems it causes.  Is that the definitive answer of what Irving is going for with The Hotel New Hampshire?  Probably not.  There are, as I said earlier, many other issues at play in the book, and that’s without mentioning how the book examines the idea of family: what it is, how it starts, what holds it all together, how it handles loss, and so on.  There are many angles from which a reader can make sense of The Hotel New Hampshire, but I, rightly or wrongly, made sense of it through the lens of Irving’s sensitive handling of the aftermath of rape.  And that’s because I, recently dismayed at the preponderance of misogyny in our culture, selfishly (and in defiance of the Common Core)  took ownership of my own reading.

The Hotel New Hampshire is so rich that it invites these kind of readings, and to reduce it, as I sort of have, to a book only about rape, is to do it a disservice.  The strongest thing working in its favor is that I could read it multiple times and see an entirely different story each time.

*****

Current listening:

Stevie Wonder Talking Book HIGH RESOLUTION COVER ART

Stevie Wonder – Talking Book (1972)