My #reading December 2016

Why shouldn’t we separate children as young as seven or eight into two groups: those few children who are “gifted and talented” and the many, many more who aren’t? What harm is there, really, in a talent show being named a “talent show”? In my view, the biggest reason a preoccupation with talent can be harmful is simple: By shining our spotlight on talent, we risk leaving everything else in the shadows. We inadvertently send the message that these other factors—including grit—don’t matter as much as they really do.

I happily read Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth on recommendation from a keynote speaker after our most recent school-organised conference. It is a very affirming read for anyone who did not excel at school – or in particular subjects – as ‘talent’ is not thought to be the most important quality in determining success. ‘Effort’ is a much greater predictor and Duckworth’s formula posits that talent and effort lead to skill; skill plus effort equals achievement.

Duckworth spends some time discussing the unconscious bias toward talent that persists in schools and most areas of life explaining, with case studies, why aptitude does not guarantee achievement. She comes to the belief that “talent for math was different from excelling in math class” but acknowledges as a teacher she began the school year with the very opposite assumption. Over the years she grows “less and less convinced that talent was destiny and more and more intrigued by the returns generated by effort”. Duckworth, like most of us, had “been distracted by talent”. She cites studies with research findings that challenge conventional wisdom:

A more unexpected observation was how little IQ mattered in distinguishing the most from the least accomplished. The average childhood IQ of the most eminent geniuses, whom Cox dubbed the First Ten, was 146.33 The average IQ of the least eminent, dubbed the Last Ten, was 143. The spread was trivial. In other words, the relationship between intelligence and eminence in Cox’s sample was exceedingly slight…Cox concluded that “high but not the highest intelligence, combined with the greatest degree of persistence, will achieve greater eminence than the highest degree of intelligence with somewhat less persistence.”

grit

It is important that I acknowledge Duckworth is singing to the choir with her findings as it is my deeply held belief that students – all of us – can succeed if we are prepared to make the effort. Hard work trumps talent in the long run (especially if one has a little luck along the way and socio-economic circumstances are not too heavily stacked against you). This begs the question, how do gritty people become ‘paragons of grit‘? Duckworth says:

First comes interest. Passion begins with intrinsically enjoying what you do.

Next comes the capacity to practice. One form of perseverance is the daily discipline of trying to do things better than we did yesterday.

Third is purpose. What ripens passion is the conviction that your work matters. For most people, interest without purpose is nearly impossible to sustain for a lifetime. It is therefore imperative that you identify your work as both personally interesting and, at the same time, integrally connected to the well-being of others.

And, finally, hope. Hope is a rising-to-the-occasion kind of perseverance. In this book, I discuss it after interest, practice, and purpose—but hope does not define the last stage of grit.

The above list makes one reflect on the nature of contemporary schooling. Our systems and structures do not reflect what research tells us about deep, authentic learning. Students need to have more purposeful, personalised programs that they help devise (with their passions, aspirations and interests in mind). The current structure, that rewards students who play the game of school that many do not find purposeful, must evolve faster than it currently is doing. Students are being taught, in many schools, about learning how to learn but the problem is not all are keen or suited to what teachers are required to teach by the mandated curriculum and archaic written examinations.

Some other wisdom from Duckworth includes:

A mountain of research studies, including a few of my own, show that when you have a habit of practicing at the same time and in the same place every day, you hardly have to think about getting started. You just do

In fact, emerging research on teaching suggests uncanny parallels to parenting. It seems that psychologically wise teachers can make a huge difference in the lives of their students.

My favourite passage in the entire book was to do with writing, or rather drafting and re-drafting:

The challenge of writing
Is to see your horribleness on page. 
To see your terribleness a
And then to go to bed. A

And wake up the next day, 
And take that horribleness and that terribleness, 
And refine it, 
And make it not so terrible and not so horrible. 
And then to go to bed again. 

And come the next day, 
And refine it a little bit more, 
And make it not so bad. 
And then to go to bed the next day. 

And do it again, 
And make it maybe average. 
And then one more time, 
If you’re lucky, 
Maybe you get to good. 

And if you’ve done that, 
That’s a success.

This book forms a third part of what is an educationally invaluable trinity – with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi‘s seminal work, Flow and Mindset by Carol Dweck – that inspire educators and parents with understanding about what is possible for students (and their teachers). Please read them all if you are a parent, teacher or student.

BTW You may wish to try “the grit scale”.

Children of the New World: Stories by Alexander Weinstein is an exceptional debut and the English teacher in me appreciated the short story form in this new author’s hands. All stories are plausible, take place in the near-future and explore the impact of technology on our humanity, ethics, environment and consciousness. The family unit is the dystopian setting for what are devastatingly thought-provoking tales that offer very little redemption.

The opening story, Saying Goodbye to Yang, is an excellent selection for senior secondary students. I’d hesitate to recommend all thirteen stories to teachers as some are very challenging (and many would suggest not appropriate for a classroom setting although I am certain plenty of students would relish the ideas and twists) but this one is suitable. The opening paragraph establishes something is not quite right:

We’re sitting around the table eating Cheerios—my wife sipping tea, Mika playing with her spoon, me suggesting apple picking over the weekend—when Yang slams his head into his cereal bowl. It’s a sudden mechanical movement, and it splashes cereal and milk all over the table. Yang rises, looking as though nothing odd just occurred, and then he slams his face into the bowl again. Mika thinks this is hysterical. She starts mimicking Yang, bending over to dunk her own face in the milk, but Kyra’s pulling her away from the table and whisking her out of the kitchen so I can take care of Yang.

We soon realise that Mika does not know her big brother is a robot. Her parents need to sort this one out very quickly. Repairs are expensive when the warranty has lapsed.

Other stories in the collection that resounded include: The New World Authorised Dictionarythe title story, Children of the New World and, The Pyramid and the Ass. Rocket Night is truly chillingThe quality of the collection is quite consistent and there are no lemons. 

It is not possible for a fan of Charlie Brooker’s television series Black Mirror to read Weinstein without finding parallels. He is not in the cheer squad for technology but is certainly imagining domestic dystopian futures that feel more and more inevitable. This is not about any perception of the Kafkaesque power of the state in individual lives or the evil that corporations do. Weinstein is talking directly to us about us. You really should read this one and I am very keen to see what Weinstein publishes next.

Highest recommendation.

 

Falcons are the fastest animals that have ever lived. They excite us, seem superior to other birds and exude a dangerous, edgy, natural sublimity.

After reading the riveting H is for Hawk (where Helen Macdonald poignantly sketches a portrait of her father – that “quiet man in a suit with a camera on his shoulder, who had set out each day in search of things that were new”) there was no way I would have missed her new book.

Falcon is a deeply thoughtful account of humanity’s relationship with the fastest of all creatures on our planet. This is an incredibly wide-ranging exploration of the history falcon and human share; the author’s treatment of what could have become a timeline with pictures is exceptional.

For millennia, people wanting to possess qualities their culture considers intrinsic to falcons – power, wildness, speed, hunting proficiency and so on – have assumed falcon identities to do so.

Myth, legend, science, nature and conservation are entwined with the author’s deep love of falconry. It is to be expected that such a symbol of power and grace would attract some of the most horrible of historical personages. With the above quote in mind, it is hardly surprising that ex-flieger, WWI ace and Nazi leader, Hermann Goering, would find this symbol alluring and commission an oil painting, by falconer-artist Renz Waller, of his white gyrfalcon. You can read about the history of the painting here.

falcoln

Hermann Goering’s white gyrfalcon, in an oil by falconer-artist Renz Waller.

Macdonald knows that we use nature as a mirror for our own needs and is fast making a career out of writing about the “difference between knowing something intellectually and feeling it deep in your bones”. Her personal reflections make the deep research very real for the reader. We go with the author into the archive and experience the challenges she faces with the research and her own mind. For those who have read her earlier book there are reflections on what she has learnt subsequently, about herself as well as the cultural history of the falcon.

Read H is for Hawk first but definitely get hold of a copy of Falcon too. Highly recommended.

I knew before I started big school that, for me, the playground would be a battlefield: a world divided into allies and enemies. At five and a half, racism had already changed me.

The Hate Race by Maxine Beneba Clarke was suggested by a member of our school book club not least as the author was local, having graduated from the University of Wollongong but mostly as it was such an engaging, emotional read, especially for a schoolteacher. How can any teacher or parent who reads this book not wince with horror at what the young Clarke experiences at school:

You tell a teacher someone is calling you names. Blackie. Monkey girl. Golliwog. The teacher stares at you, exasperated, as if to say: Do you really expect me to do something about it? The next time you have a grievance, you look for a different teacher.

I learned to stay quiet. I learned that nobody much cared. I learned that it was probably my fault anyway, and that what they were doing to me was perfectly okay. This is how it alters us. This is how we change.

This memoir details many incidents of racism. The reader can see that these can become central to the identity of many young Australians, not just the author. The opening of the book details Clarke’s recent adult experience of mindlessly abusive racism, while with her child, that leaves the reader reeling too. There is a deftness in the writing which prevents the narrative from wearing down, even the most sympathetic or empathetic of readers, with what could have become a litany of slights and grievances. Often, it is quite an amusing rites of passage story, especially for those who grew up in the Australia of the 80s and 90s.

There is much poetry in the memoir and Clarke is clearly a poet:

That last afternoon, when I pulled the school tunic off over my head at home, there’d been black marks all over my back, stomach and upper arms where the permanent Texta had soaked through the material and into my skin. The black ink splotches looked like tiny little bruises, hidden away in places only I could see.

Clarke provides important personal context by making her parents flesh and blood. The story of their experiences in England and subsequent emigration to Sydney is a narrative of national, historic significance. We hear too few migrant stories. I read too few migrant stories. There needs to be more celebration and honest evaluation of what is is like to grow up in contemporary Australia for the many who migrate here or are second generation citizens.

I look forward to reading more of what Maxine Beneba Clarke has to say in the years to come and will keep an ear out for her poetry.

Written by Bruce Pascoe, an Australian Indigenous writer from the Bunurong clan, of the Kulin nation, Dark Emu taught me more than I would like to admit about Australian history. The author challenges the conventional interpretation that pre-colonial Aboriginal society was solely a hunter-gatherer one and posits that information about systems of food production, land management and aquaculture have been neglected in Australian history books and courses. Pascoe’s bibliography and sources are impressive.

The diaries of early explorers, pastoralists and surveyors provide evidence that Aboriginal people across the continent were sowing seeds, harvesting, irrigating, milling, storing and trading these resources in a manner recognisable to the first Europeans. He neatly sidesteps predictable criticism by not relying on oral sources. He quotes explorer Charles Sturt describing a village consisting of nineteen huts, troughs and stones for grinding seed. The descriptions of seeds being exchanged and traded really resonated with me. The author also cites Norman Tindale, suggesting the milling techniques on the Australian continent may be 18 000 years old which, if accurate, rewrites much of what has been conventional understanding of Aboriginal – and world history. I am chasing-up the authors he cites, such as Bill Gammage and Rupert Gerritsen, to find out more about Aboriginal farming practices.

Dark Emu won NSW Premier’s Book of the year and Indigenous Writer’s Prize in 2016. You can read the author’s ruminations about Andrew Bolt with some interesting comments about Australian academia and the nature of history in this country. You can listen to Fran Kelly interview the author.

It took a while to settle into The Boy Behind the Curtain by Tim WintonBy the end of this collection of non fiction writings it was evident how much the world Winton evokes is one where the familiar is viewed with new eyes. Maybe that’s not completely true but certainly he is reassuringly clear-sighted. Winton’s idea of Australia and the values that he enunciates are decent and fair; they resound. When Winton ruminates on the environment or the politics of class, growing-up on the coast or the impact of car crashes I just recognise his experiences of Australia in a way that no other writer makes me feel. His rationality, deeply tempered by a spirituality that reveres the natural world, seems neither overblown or manipulative. It feels just right.

Do the following quotes talk to you of an Australia you know?

The year 2011 was the worst for fatal shark attacks in Australia in living memory. Four people lost their lives. These were violent deaths, terrible events. With the help of news media a kind of fever gripped the public imagination, and as a result lots of Australians and foreign tourists were too terrified to swim in the sea. That same year we suffered the lowest road toll since the Second World War, with only 1292 Australians killed. Some of these people died slowly, many were disarticulated. Their blood stained the lawns and streets of many safe neighbourhoods. But there was no media-fanned panic, nobody stayed off the roads – on the contrary, our road usage went up. This most common form of violent death simply doesn’t frighten us anymore. The very real likelihood of being mangled in a car is something we’ve domesticated. That’s not simply a contradiction, it’s a marvel of human psychology.

‘The rising tide did not lift all the boats; it floated a few yachts.’ 

In 2012 Tony Burke declared the world’s largest system of marine parks. When he came to power in September 2013, the new prime minister Tony Abbott announced a moratorium on all new marine parks and a review of those recently declared. He was removed from office less than two years into his term, but both the freeze and the review have continued under Malcolm Turnbull and his various environment ministers. All indications suggest the government is likely to reduce protection.

…I am conscious that my own trajectory is atypical. And yet a career like mine is not quite the rarity it would have been a generation ago. Contemporaries like Richard Flanagan, Kim Scott and Christos Tsiolkas will have similar stories to tell. For all our differences as writers and people, we all emerged from what were once termed the lower orders and found ourselves – by reason of income and social recognition – in the middle class.

Don’t make assumptions about anyone based on their job or their clothes or the suburb they live in. The stockbroker in the Jag could be an ally. The lady in the twinset and pearls might be weary of being misunderstood and secretly ashamed of what her husband does for a living. Don’t give up on the shabby older journo hoisting his gut from the company car; he might have a memory and a soft spot for the little people.

What church and school had in common was how damned boring they could be. You were a captive in both.

The child of a pragmatic, philistine and insular culture, I responded to the prospect of something wilder, broader, softer, more fluid and emotional. It sounds unlikely but I suspect surfing unlocked the artist in me.

My favourite passage is one that is an analogy describing his writing:

Strange as it might seem, the life of a novelist is often like that of a surfer. I come to the desk every day and mostly I wait. I sit for hours, bobbing in a sea of memories, impressions and historical events. The surfer waits for swells, and what are they but the radiating energy of events across the horizon, the leftovers of tempests and turmoils already in the past? The surfer waits for something to turn up from the unseen distance and if he’s vigilant and patient it’ll come to him. He has to be there to meet it. And when it comes he has to be alert and fit and committed enough to turn and ride that precious energy to the beach. When you manage to do this you live for a short while in the eternal present tense. And the feeling is divine. That’s how I experience writing, which is its own compulsion. I show up. I wait. When some surge of energy finally arrives, I do what I must to match its speed. While I can, I ride its force. For a brief period I’m caught up in something special, where time has no purchase, and my bones don’t ache and my worries fall away. Then it’s all flow. And I’m dancing.

Girt. No word could better capture the essence of Australia. Switzerland, Paraguay and Burkina Faso are merely girt by other countries, but Australia is entirely and defiantly girt by sea.

Girt: The Unauthorised History of Australia by David Hunt is a humorous account of Australian history that has been a popular bestseller. I listened to a free audiobook narrated by Hunt after having a relative’s copy of the paperback sitting on the unread pile, where it has been since 2014. This was clearly advertising for the recently released sequel. Successful advertising too, as I purchased the new one on completion.

Hunt does a good, ironical job providing a survey of Australian history covering the content you would expect in a secondary school textbook from yesteryear: First Fleeters, convicts, governors, explorers, bushrangers and a motley cast of dubious characters who trade in rum and sheep. Hunt examines the politics of Australia’s “history wars” with a particular focus on Indigenous peoples (which will be revisited in a Tasmanian context in the sequel).

My favourite chapter was about that “publicity-slut” Joseph Banks. Yes, his irreverent retelling of the story of Bank’s life and career is very funny but also made me think how little I really know about the famous botanist. He is one of those historical figures that seems very straight-laced and bank note-ish but Hunt certainly shows a different side to his character – or lack of it. I have tracked his source and am waiting for the local library to provide.

The bibliography is slight but interesting. Hunt acknowledges the superlative historical writing of Grace Karskens and also lists some interesting sources for 18th century England. The funniest line in the whole book is in the acknowledgments:

Keith Windschuttle’s “The Fabrication of Aboriginal History” makes an excellent stand for a computer monitor.

I believe that what we become depends on what our fathers teach us at odd moments, when they aren’t trying to teach us. We are formed by little scraps of wisdom.

Ghost Empire by Richard Fidler is a book I almost stopped reading (well, listening to). Initially, the idea that Fidler would travel with his teenage son to Istanbul, not literally back in time but in spirit to explore the Byzantine empire was very appealing. It is the kind of thing I’d like to do with my children. As I progressed, it felt that there was too little of their travels and conversations. That’s what I wanted. I persisted and felt rewarded by the engaging way the author, who also narrated the audiobook, told tales of this empire neglected by our culture and education systems.

It does seem like an unusual project for Fidler, who is a well-known radio personality with a flair for interviewing with compassion, wit and good-humour. He explains:

Sometime in my twenties I discovered the treasure trove of stories that lie within the eleven centuries of Constantinople’s history: tales of emperors and empresses, crusader knights, floating nuns, mechanical trees, Vikings, Huns, Goths and Khazars. In the eleven centuries of Constantinople’s existence we see the clash of civilisations, the fall of empires, the rise of Christianity, revenge, lust and murder.

Considering there is over a thousand years of history involved in telling the tale of the rise and fall of Constantinople, Fidler has done well to synthesise and make the book light and accessible. He is a good storyteller and the final gasps of the Roman empire, in the mid-fifteenth are particularly well-rendered. One almost senses that Fidler is saddened the journey was concluding for himself – as well as the empire – seems to prolong, rather than drag out the ending. By this stage, I didn’t mind living vicariously through Fidler for a little longer. I have am not likely to be in Istanbul any time soon so this was a more than reasonable substitute.

The #MonuMeta Social Media Book by Roger Warner promised to be something from a left field inhabited by the likes of the late Douglas Adams. Science fiction  set in a near-future, the omniscient Mee Corp, developer of ‘The Stream’, a social networking site with a new female lead designer who is blue starts interestingly enough. We learn pretty quickly that aliens are involved and it all heads downhill pretty quickly. I have, as of yet, been unable to finish. It was just all a little silly and not making me laugh at all as I progressed through the book. 

There were some interesting, quite amusing passages at the opening that did make me smile though:

Nobody ever ventured in the library. Nobody needed to. Such was the effectiveness of The Stream – the three dimensional social network that connected everyone to everybody and all human knowledge that exists in between.

BAXTER WARD’S LIST OF TROUBLESOME WORKPLACE THINGS+ – The manner in which the museum had been acquired by Mee Corp. The cold but charismatic Dr Self had managed to persuade the mayor of London and the museum’s trustees that his company would deliver a burst of ‘innovation and disruption’ that would provide the ideal home for the brightest minds of the UK’s post-graduate computer science community. Since public interest in the museum had been dwindling, and since the city of London needed a cash injection, his proposal was accepted – but only after the mysterious disappearance of the mayor, who to that day had not been found. – The rapidity with which senior people in the company’s software development team seemed to come and go. One minute they were being heralded by the world’s media, the next they failed to turn up to work and were scrubbed from the company’s corporate Stream. Tara Tamana was the only one that he’d managed to befriend. Her predecessors he couldn’t even remember. – The way in which all of the company’s senior executives seemed to ignore him. It wasn’t the lack of recognition that disturbed him – he was resigned to that, given his lowly status as a near-janitor. It was more the way that they never engaged him with their eyes and the residual feel of their soft, limp and sweaty handshakes whenever they tried to congratulate him on a task. All their hands were a mess and in need of a darned good manicure. – The voices that he’d hear in the museum at night – although he couldn’t be sure if this was down to the museum or the onset of early dementia. – The fact that he now had to buy his own Earl Grey tea.

When I tweeted a quote the author responded.

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Unfortunately (and what what has become more interesting than the book) @RogerWarner seems to have disappeared from Twitter. I was writing this review and thought to check Roger’s tweetstream to see what was happening but alas, he was gone. Perhaps the aliens have silenced him for uncovering their plot? Maybe he did not make it out of the library?

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Postscript

Thank you for reading my monthly book posts. They are often quite lengthy and I appreciate your endurance. A special thanks to those who take the time to comment.

All the books I read in 2016 can be found here and the reviews of these books here. These were my faves for 2015 and all my reviews for last year too.

During 2017, I plan to continue making a monthly blog post about books read (as I have for done for the last two years). However, I feel the need to write more decent reviews so will still post what has been read but only complete one lengthy, more significant, book review each month.

Best wishes for the New Year!

@Darcy1968

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1 Comment

  1. David:

    Great post with interesting insights. Enjoyed the quotes from Grit and Winton. Thanks Darcy for your blog. Always a good read!

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