In our monthly book club, we discuss whatever we happen to be reading and ask everyone in the comments to do the same. What Are You Reading This Month?
The massive teachers strikes that have taken place over the past few months reminded me that I have Micah Uetricht’s Strike For America sitting on my shelf. It’s a small and attractive book, printed by radical publisher Verso and part of a series from socialist magazine Jacobin. Strike For America is all about the enormously successful 2012 teachers strike in Chicago, one of the most critical collective actions this side of the century, and an event that laid the groundwork for the teachers strikes we’re seeing today. Uetricht patiently lays out the conditions that led the teachers to strike, examining in accessible language the broad shift away from public services to a neoliberal agenda that treats education like a business, to the benefit of the already-wealthy and at the expense of students.
The Chicago Teachers Union and the state of teacher unions in general is also unpacked; the once-powerful union had failed, for decades, to fight on behalf of the teachers or even do much to challenge the gutting of public education and teacher pay and benefits at all. Before the strike could happen, a profound shift took place in the union, with a small contingent challenging the impotent leadership. By building genuine relationships with Chicago Public Schools parents and Chicago neighborhoods, and through engaging the teachers themselves, new leaders were able to take the Chicago Teachers Union in a radical direction, one that openly and confidently challenged the chronic underfunding, racism, closings, creation of charter schools, standardized testing, and a city-run program that took money away from schools and gave it to wealthy corporations. With a new consciousness among its members, the union flexed its muscles and went on strike for better conditions for not only themselves but also the students they teach in crumbling schools, making the radical call for the city to address poverty and racist funding schemes that disproportionally affect students of color. Subtitled Chicago Teachers Against Austerity, Strike For America shows what a powerful, militant union can look like, and how strategic confrontations like large-scale strikes can successfully resist neoliberalism and return power to workers. [Caitlin PenzeyMoog]
In the summer of 2001, it became clear where it was headed. My mom’s inflammatory breast cancer had spread, so a cure was impossible. We were now racing a clock whose numbers we couldn’t see. That fall, I happened to read David Sedaris’ 1997 essay collection, Naked. The penultimate essay, “Ashes,” is about the illness and death of his mother, whom Sedaris and his five siblings worshipped. She frequently appeared in his early stories, usually accompanied by a cigarette or cocktail, often delivering some acerbic remark. After I read the book, I photocopied “Ashes” and gave it to my sisters, I guess in the hope they’d find it cathartic like I did. Although my mom couldn’t have been more different from Sedaris’, “Ashes” perfectly captured the howling dread and awkward banality of terminal illness. In entertainment, it’s generally portrayed with maximum sap, but Sedaris’ mom was almost painfully unsentimental, intolerant of touchy-feely goodbyes or dramatic gestures. Sedaris’ story is funny and moving, as I rediscovered when I decided to reread it a few weeks ago for the first time in years—somehow without realizing the 16th anniversary of my mom’s death was around the corner. Check it out in Naked—the rest of which I reread and enjoyed once again—or hear Sedaris read it on This American Life. [Kyle Ryan]
Books are the one realm where I often have a hard time just letting go and enjoying a pulpy paperback. Maybe it’s the spines of all those serious works of literature staring out at me from my shelves. How can I possibly start digging into this semi-adequately written supernatural page-turner when John Irving’s A Prayer For Owen Meany is eyeing me, unread, from across the room? But I actually finished Scott Thomas’ Kill Creek, a horror novel about horror, and enjoyed it largely on the basis of its metafictional conceits. Following four acclaimed horror writers who are invited to spend the night in a purportedly haunted house, broadcast live for the tens of millions of fans of the internet’s most popular horror site (arguably the most implausible aspect of a story that involves ghosts), the book is simultaneously a meditation on horror itself. Why we read it, why we enjoy it, and how myths and fables take on the weight of popular consciousness all come under consideration, along with a fleet and unsettling tale of things going bump in the night. It’s got its problems (particularly Thomas’ primary female character, who comes across more as a series of ill-considered “tough woman” tics than a three-dimensional person), but the Stephen King-esque storytelling helps power through those flaws. It’s a Sunday matinee, to be sure, but a creepy and entertaining one.
At the same time, I’ve gone back to some critical texts that influence my day job. Critics will often yammer on about how we’re continually trying to absorb the latest work in our chosen profession, but the sad secret is we’re usually too busy actually working to get the time we’d like to keep up with new research and analysis in our field. But that doesn’t mean we don’t regularly book time to refresh our brains, which is how I ended up taking another look at How To Watch Television. This collection of essays is a common sight in undergraduate media studies classes, as it manages to cover a broad swath of fundamental concepts and ideas involving TV criticism, albeit from a much more academic perspective. I’d read it some years back, but a recent conversation with a colleague about Mad Men’s set design led me to pull it out of the drawer, and I was pleased to discover additional ideas unlocked by a return visit, something that confirms its value as a resource. In particular, Jeremy Butler’s essay on Mad Men’s visual style and Kevin Sandler’s use of Modern Family to discuss product placement contained arguments far more persuasive to me in the intervening years since I first engaged with them, and that hindsight is pushing me to pull out a few more key texts in my TV education—maybe Erik Barnouw’s Tube Of Plenty will be next. [Alex McLevy]