Skip to content

Some Really Good Non-Fiction

January 16, 2008

It seems like lately, non-fic and I are bosom buddies. :)  The last three I read all rated four or five stars, and I’m going to talk about two of those today.  Also, reviews two of the good non-fic books I read last year, but couldn’t talk about here, are up at Curled Up: Classics for Pleasure by Michael Dirda and God’s Harvard by Hanna Rosin.  I highly recommend both of them!

I’ve already mentioned Bury Me Standing by Isabel Fonseca, but I think it deserves a bit more attention! Fonseca looks at Bury Me Standingthe plight of the gypsies, mostly in the present, but with some historical digressions. This book is difficult to categorise; parts of it feel like a travel memoir, as Fonseca runs around central Europe, parts of it feel like a call to arms, other parts feel like history lessons. Oh, and there are black-and-white photos sprinkled liberally throughout. Fonseca manages to mix all of this together into a compelling book that brings readers, if not quite into the gypsy’s world, at least into the outskirts of it.

The book begins with Fonseca living with a gypsy family in Albania. About the first third of the book stays in Albania, which allows the reader to really begin to connect with gypsies as people. Being a girl, I was quite interested by the sections on gypsy women. They’re married young, between twelve and fourteen, and at that point they become “boria,” or daughters-in-law. Until they become mothers-in-law themselves, they’re essentially the servants of the household, doing most of the washing, scrubbing, cooking, etc. They also begin to have children right away, so that hypothetically, if they have sons, they could become mothers-in-law in their late twenties/early thirties. Fonseca, as a single, childless woman was an anathema:

When (on my first day) they discovered that at the age of twenty-nine I still hadn’t had even one, the puri daj-herself a mother of ten-patted my wrist sympathetically: clearly I was barren. This explained why I had no husband either and, worst of all, why I was condemned to wander the world, to go to Albania for Christ’s sake, far from family and friends to stay with complete strangers….My life was a tragedy, they saw that, but it was one they could warm to, and they let me know it: after all, hadn’t they in their past been “condemned” to wander the world? Hadn’t they too be condemned to Albania?

After this quite personal introduction, Fonseca alternates sections on general info about gypsies with personal profiles. She also travels around, looking at how gypsies are treated in various countries. The historical digressions, with the exception of the gypsies’ origins, focus on the twentieth century. There are long section on how various Communist regimes mistreated the gypsies and, in the second-to-last-chapter, Fonseca goes into great detail about the Nazis’ view of gypsies and the resulting genocide. Fonseca, Jewish herself, argues that the gypsies have been unforgiveably over-looked, even by Jews intent on ensuring the Holocaust is never forgotten. Within both this and the final chapter, Fonseca becomes more overtly political, but the reader can hardly blame her as one atrocity after another is documented. There are many passages that I marked, that will appear at the very end of this post, and the book as whole provides a ton of insights into gypsy culture as well as an indictment of the modern world’s treatment of them. I gave it four stars, instead of five, because at parts it drags a bit. Still, well worth a reading. :)

On to a completely different topic, last night I finished Linda Perlstein’s Tested. Perlstein, according to the back flap, was a Washington Post education reporter for five years. In May of 2005, she began a long-term project, embedding herself in Testedone of Annapolis’ poorer elementary schools: Tyler Heights. Her objective was to see how the “No Child Left Behind Act,” with its heavy focus on reading and math testing, had affected teaching.  But the book is so much more than that.  It looks at the struggles of the teachers, of the principle, briefly glances at the multi-billion dollar private industry surrounding public schools, wanders into Annapolis’ projects and, of course, looks at the world through the eyes of various elementary schoolers.  It’s a pretty short book (around 250 pages), and compulsively readable; I couldn’t put it down!  Pretty early on, Perlstein makes her opinions known: she laments the loss of creative teaching, the sacrifice of social studies and science, all in the name of higher test scores.  She also sympathises with all of her subjects: the principle who, while perhaps a trifle too much type-A, tries hard to do what’s best for her school, the teachers who struggle against odds and difficulties to get their kids to learn something, the kids and their parents, stuck in poor situations and “leaking hope.” (I loved that phrase)

Just when I’d decided that I’d have to homeschool my future kids, Perlstein briefly profiles a well-off elementary school.  The difference is astounding: while both schools have to prepare for the same tests, elementary school kids from the upper middle class already come to school with basic skills that some Tyler Heights third-graders haven’t mastered.  This leaves space for the fun, creative learning that elementary school is supposed to be about.  So, if you think this book is going to be completely bashing the American public education system, it’s not.  It is, however, definitely anti-“No Child Left Behind.”  It also exposes just how dready school has become for many of America’s youngest impoverished citizens.  While the school itself receives a ton of grant money, much of it can’t be put to good use since almost all classroom time is devoted to teaching the reading and math tests.  Once again, I marked way too many passages, which will appear at the bottom of the post if you’re interested.  I’d recommend this book to pretty much anyone interested in American education, since it provides a fascinating window into the thoughts and lives of principles, teachers, and students.

Favourite Passages (Bury Me Standing):
But among Romani speakers these big-concept, encompassing words are not much needed. Without these generalities, the language flows like a good poem, rich in detail, in concrete images, and in fresh, inventive use of simple words. So, for “I love you,” you got (as in Spanish) “I want you,” but just as often “I eat you,” or even “I eat your eyes.” “I want to eat your face” (or “I want to eat your mouth”: the word for both “face” and “mouth” is jus) is a request for a kiss. (58)

The days and weeks seemed to roll into one another-perhaps because I was never told words for the days of the week or for the months, and any inquiries I made were regarded as trick questions. If pressed, the children, and even the boria, had a lot of trouble, especially with the months. Seasons were easy. There were only two: summer and winter, or the hot and the cold. No day was different from any other…(60)

Though the interiors of Gypsy houses in even the poorest quarters of Krompachy were tidy, the outside was invariable a tip…The squalor was startling in contrast to the lots of the proud, neatly pressed peasants next door, among whom the Gypsies predictably, and in this case understandably, were unpopular. No matter how high the Slovaks tacked that chicken wire, or how assiduously they topped their walls and dividing legends with broken bottles, they were always planting for the gypsies as well as for themselves. The Masai of East Africa are said to believe that all cattle belong to them; the Roma of eastern Slovakia, it seems, feel the same way about potatoes. (101)

Standing in front of the display of brown leather suitcase, I tilted my head to read the familiar Jewish names, each one carefully painted, with an address, in large thickish white letters. Confronted by all these possessions-the ordinary appurtenances of bourgeois life in civilized, settled prewar Europe-it struck me that one reason the Gypsies do have a presence here at Auschwitz, or in our private, mental archives of the Holocaust, is that none of these things was theirs. They seem to have disappeared, without a trace. (255)

Favourite Passages (Tested):
Back when teachers did their own thing, Lorna Leone felt, you couldn’t compare the progress between classes or schools. So now she emphasizes uniformity-at quite a detailed level….Leone was concerned that each classroom in each grade didn’t have the same number of vocabulary words displayed on their Word Walls. Why aren’t they all the same size? Why do some teachers post the words on the wall and some on a flip chart? Why does one fifth-grade teacher have parts of speech on the wall but the other doesn’t? How do teachers collaborate on which words are hung up? (55)

Tyler Heights is a warm place and the staff, in a litigious world, is brave enough to be generous with hugs. Children are welcomed and sent home every day through an assembly line of enthusiasm, from Mr. Al opening the car door to Ms. Prater opening the school door to Ms. Johnson complimenting your outfit. (61)

So now, Johnson sighed, the school was responsible for the girl’s diet too. Many children in poverty are given bottles of sugar water or Oodles of Noodles broth as infants, Froot Loops as toddlers, and by the time they show up at school they’re often overweight, undernourisghed, plagued with rotting teeth. Tyler Heights students laughed when I asked if they had to drink milk at home; occasionally they arrived at school at 7:45 a.m. clutching sodas from McDonald’s. All American public schools provide federally subsidized lunch to poor children; at Tyler Heights, free breakfast was served too. In the bins delivered to each classroom, among the mostly untouched Wheaties and Cheerios, are packets of Pop-Tarts and Dinosaur Grahams, sugar-laden strawberry milk, iced Super Buns with enough vitamins pumped through the sixteen grams of fat to qualify as nutritious. (64)

Today, the norm in American elementary school classrooms is to parse a text using comprehension strategies, such as summarizing and predicting the events of a passage, without equally emphasizing the value of content….In a classroom that focuses primarily on sounding out words and comprehension strategies, it can seem like reading is more of a basic arithmetic problem instead of a starting point for exploration or thought. (76)

The BCRs tended to repeat themselves, responses to a limitd range of questions teachers knew would be on the county benchmark tests and suspected would be on the [test]. The fifth graders were usually asked how illustrations made information easier to read, how an author set a certain tone, or how the setting influenced a character’s actions. The third graders answered again and again what traits described the main character of a story. They wrote the “I know this is a play because” BCR about ten times but never got to take the parts of characters and act a play our loud. They wrote “I know this is a fairy tale because” and “I know this is a fable because” but never tried their hand at creating either. About a fake brochure they wrote, “The text features that make this easy for a third grader to understand are italics, numbering, and underline.” But they never made their own brochures with their own text features…(127-8)

“I feel sad because the whole Maryland sees my test,” one boy said. “The president too, and everyone hates him.” (238)

16 Comments leave one →
  1. litchickmel permalink
    January 17, 2008 10:44 am

    I loved this book and Perlstein’s earlier book – Nothin Much Just Chillin’. I live in Maryland so I find these particular books even more meaningful. I read God’s Harvard recently as well. I’d be curious to see your thoughts sometime.

  2. January 17, 2008 12:29 pm

    Now you know why those of us who work for publishing companies that try to encourage teachers to be creative in the classroom have so often, since the implementation of NCLB, found ourselves experiencing moments of despair. I’ll have to add this one to my “read for work” list.

  3. January 17, 2008 2:06 pm

    Mel, I want to look into her earlier book, but I’m afraid. Middle schoolers in general horrify and terrify me at the same, lol. So many hormones….so little maturity…..*shudder* If you want to know my thoughts on God’s Harvard, click through the link! I review for as well, and I’d feel kind of weird cross-posting. But i’t still my thoughts. :) I’d look forward to your perspective as well! Do you have a blog? (It’s not showing up in your name)

    Emily, I wish I’d thought of that acronym while I was writing the review. Oh well. I’m sorry about your moments of despair. :( I think anyone who loves to read, and sees how reading is taught at Tyler Heights, will have those moments as well.

  4. January 18, 2008 7:36 am

    I think I mentioned on another post of yours that Bury Me Standing sounds very interesting, but your review made me add it to my wishlist for sure! Anything Eastern-Europe raises my interest, but minorities in Eastern-Europe especially (I wrote my LL.M-thesis on a topic related to both minority rights and E-Europe).

    Several years ago I was traveling in Romania by train and on one of our trips a Roma-couple sat down across the aisle from us. They were both very young, he was maybe 17, she a couple years younger. Both were wearing beautiful traditional dress, especially the girls’ clothes were so colorful. I don’t remember what it was exactly, but something made me rather sure they were a recently married couple. I hadn’t thought of this memory for years, but your review brought it back and I can see it now vividly before me again, the contrast of the run-down, dirty train and the brightly dressed couple.

  5. January 18, 2008 2:20 pm

    Myrthe, what a neat story! And a neat thesis topic. :) I wrote my honors project on the international community’s peacekeeping and nationbuilding attempts in Bosnia, so I got to talk a little about minority rights, but not too much.

  6. January 18, 2008 5:17 pm

    These both sound like very interesting books!

  7. January 20, 2008 7:31 pm

    Jeane, thanks for stopping by! They were both quite interesting. :)

  8. January 21, 2008 11:02 am

    Both of these sound great – I’d heard of Bury me Standing but haven’t read a review of it before. Testing is very interesting to me as I have a child in kindergarten. One problem with the private vs public school issue as I see it is, if the influential parents with $ and resources (and who would be more likely to ‘make some noise’ about poor schools) send their kids to private schools, the public ones will never improve.

  9. January 21, 2008 7:46 pm

    Tara, that’s a very good point. I grew up in public schools (my dad was enlisted Air Force), and when we were overseas I always had to go the the DoD schools, which aren’t nearly as well-funded or fancy as the schools the Embassy kids went to. That divide always reminds me of the public/private thing. Hopefully, my future kids’ll be Embassy brats, lol!

  10. January 25, 2008 6:00 pm

    Come on, admit it, you want to…nonfiction is the best!! Thanks for the great review of these titles; I need to check them all out!

  11. January 25, 2008 6:51 pm

    Nonanon, hehe! I really like nonfiction, but nothing’s going to take away the comfort of a great novel. ;) Still, the more nonfic I incorporate into my life, the more I get addicted to it.

  12. Anne Hays permalink
    February 26, 2012 10:34 am

    I really liked your article.Truly thank you! Excellent.


  1. Decade of Roma Inclusion » Some Really Good Non-Fiction
  2. Decade of Roma Inclusion » Some Really Good Non Fiction
  3. My wishlist, part 2 « The Armenian Odar Reads
  4. To ‘Joy My Freedom by Tera W. Hunter (thoughts) « A Striped Armchair

Thank you for commenting! For a long while, my health precluded me replying to everyone. Yet I missed the conversation, so I'm now making an effort to reply again. It might take a few days though, and there will be times when I simply can't. Regardless, I always read and value what you say.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: