Port City Notebook

News, views and random observations around Alexandria

Five Favorite Books of 2015

This year’s list is heavy on nonfiction. Even though I read a few novels that I enjoyed, most of them weren’t superb enough to make my top five for 2015.

betweentheworldBetween the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
This winner of the 2015 National Book Award for nonfiction is the most important book that I read this year. Ta-Nehisi Coates writes so elegantly and lyrically that this slim volume reads more like a poem than a letter to his 15-year-old son, Samori. Few books have struck me deep in my soul the way this one does, or have given me a better glimpse of what it means to grow up as a young black male in a poor inner city.

Weeks after finishing the book I’m still struggling to sort out my various reactions to it, but I will share one of them here. Early in the letter Coates says to his son, “I write you in your fifteenth year…And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body…The destroyers are merely men enforcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting its heritage and legacy.” He later describes how a Howard University classmate, Prince Jones, was wrongly shot to death by a (black) Prince George’s County police officer. Jones was innocent, and the officer was never prosecuted.

This tragedy left Coates with a profound sense of rage toward police officers that’s no doubt shared by loved ones of countless other victims of police brutality. It is appalling that much of the country is just recently waking up to the reality that minority communities have been enduring and complaining vociferously about for generations. While I’m moved by his account of Jones’ unjust and untimely killing and sickened by police violence against minorities, I’m also grateful for the law enforcement officers in our own city who meticulously solve crimes, such as the robbery and stabbing of beloved neighbors a year ago, and officers such as the father of a T.C. Williams student who heroically risked his life in the line of duty.

I am left thinking that Coates has little or no hope for white Americans like me and our offspring to chip away at—let alone eliminate—racial injustice. As someone who strives in my day-to-day life and volunteer pursuits to enhance the opportunities available to disadvantaged members of our community, and who has striven to raise my children to see the immense gift inherent in the diverse and inclusive environment in which they have been immersed, I cannot acquiesce to that view.

prizeThe Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools? by Dale Russakoff
Few books about education reform can be called page-turners, but this one can. Journalist Dale Russakoff tells the tale of how Corey Booker, then mayor of Newark and now U.S. Senator, and New Jersey governor Chris Christie, now GOP candidate for President, convinced Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan to make a $100 million gift to Newark to rescue its failing public school system. Zuckerberg’s hope, writes Russakoff, was that the money would be used to attract the same type of high-achieving college graduates who commonly populate the workspaces at Facebook to instead teach in an urban school district, and to nurture and handsomely reward those who transformed students’ lives.

If only. Because of the inflexibility of existing labor contracts, very little of the $100 million gift, which Newark parents and teachers first learned about on the Oprah show, went toward that goal. Instead, most of it went toward paying high-priced outside consultants and expanding charter schools while also trying to stabilize the district schools that were losing students to the new charter schools. Unlike charter schools in most of the rest of the U.S., the charter schools in Newark have outperformed the district schools, but largely because, through a complicated budget dynamic, the charter schools can direct more money into the classroom for additional teachers and student support staff than the district schools.

Despite good intentions all around, at the end of the day there is painfully little to show for Zuckerberg’s $100 million and the additional $100 million in matching funds that were raised. But there are plenty of lessons to learn from this cautionary tale: First, any reform movement requires the support of the school community from the start. Second, improving academic achievement for children in poverty requires a holistic solution, encompassing not only rewarding teachers as professionals and providing adequate physical surroundings, but also addressing the underlying factors that make it difficult for kids in poverty to succeed, such as hunger, poor housing, unsafe neighborhoods and family dysfunction. Third, too often school officials make decisions that benefit adults rather than students—I have seen it happen in ACPS—and predictably students end up worse off.

betweenyou&meBetween You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris
If you enjoyed Eats, Shoots & Leaves, then you’ll love this memoir by the former chief copy editor of The New Yorker, Mary Norris. You will laugh out loud at the stories she tell about her encounters with famous authors’ prose (and the authors themselves) and you will marvel at her memorable way of explaining grammar rules. No one can definitively resolve the “who v. whom” and “that v. which” battles better than she.


can'twetalkCan’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast
The New Yorker cartoonist and only child Roz Chast uses her signature wit and comical sketches to describe the challenges facing her and her parents during their final years. For sandwich-generation members who are struggling with eldercare issues or parents who are just plain difficult, this quick read will affirm that your struggles are shared by millions of others and will leave you in a lighter mood ready to tackle the next day. Tip: Read this in hardcover or paperback form rather than on a device to fully appreciate the wonderful four-color artwork.

decorumDecorum by Kaaren Christopherson
Alexandria resident Kaaren Christopherson’s first novel, set in New York City in the 1890s, will remind you of Edith Wharton and an earlier-era Downton Abbey. The extensive background research that she undertook in writing the book is reflected in her collection of fascinating characters and her descriptions of the environment in which they live. The organizing theme of the book came from an etiquette guide written in 1881 that belonged to her great-grandmother; well-chosen excerpts from the guide at the beginning of each chapter add authenticity and amusement. The tagline “There’s nothing polite about society…” says it all.


Save the Date!

The 2015 Summer Camp Fair, sponsored by the PTA Council of Alexandria, will be held Wednesday, February 17, from 5:30 to 8:00 p.m. in the cafeteria of T.C. Williams High School at 3330 King Street in Alexandria. All families are invited, and admission and parking are free. Pizza will be available for purchase. Printed directories will be available, featuring all camps in attendance as well as several others.

For more than 10 years, the PTA Council of Alexandria has hosted this summer camp fair, the largest of its kind in the area. More than 60 exhibitors will represent a wide range of day and overnight camps. Students of all ages (Pre-K through high school) will find interesting opportunities including art, academics, adventure, theater, engineering, history, music, sports, special needs, and more. Many of the camps offer scholarships for those with financial need.


Coming Up

Have you heard about the Family Fun Nights at Chinquapin Rec Center? They are typically held one Friday night per month and are co-sponsored by the Alexandria Parks & Recreation Department and Advocates for Alexandria Aquatics. This month’s Family Fun Night will spotlight students and families from John Adams Elementary, but all families are welcome. It will be held on Friday, January 22, from 6:00 to 9:00 p.m.

Bring the whole family for swimming and fun for all ages. Pool games include beach ball relays, water basketball, diving for prizes and fun on the ‘Aqua Challenge’ floating obstacle course. Admission is $4 per person.

The next Family Fun Night will be on February 26 and will feature Mount Vernon Community School.

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