Mrs. Winkler’s Last Summer Book, but She Keeps Reading

The last book I finished before the craziness of teaching all online, synchronous and asynchronous, was a book my brother gave to me a while back, and I finally pushed through the stack to get to it.

I’m glad I did.

No one Is Coming to Save Us by Stephanie Powell Watts is marketed to be a retelling of The Great Gatsby, and there are certainly echoes of Fitzgerald’s iconic novel here. The twists, however, make the novel rise above a simple re-telling. Jade Chang in her New York Times review describes the novel as a “skillful riff on ‘The Great Gatsby,’ which revolves around a contemporary black family in a declining North Carolina town,” an apt description of the novel.

Jay Gatsby is recast as JJ Ferguson, a young man who has left Pinewood, a small town in the Piedmont, to seek the American Dream. He returns a wealthy man, and begins to court Ava, our Daisy, who is now married to a weak man who is unfaithful to her.

Sound familiar?

Yes, some of the same themes are there, but the novel reveals the importance of setting in a novel. This is not a New York story. It is not one Nick Carraway could have told. It is not a story that any one person can tell, so we discover the hidden truths from multiple points of view, all circling around the most unlikely of Nick-type characters, Ava’s mother Sylvia, who is rooted in the soil of her Southern home.

Perhaps because I am about the same age as Sylvia, her perspective resonates the most with me. Her transformation is quiet and not earth-shattering– acceptance of herself, her past, and her place in life. Forgiveness. During the extraordinary days that have been the Summer of 2020, I have found myself learning these things, too.

And feeling good about it.

Here is a passage that captures Sylvia’s self-deprecating mood at the beginning of the novel, one of the passages that drew me into this amazing woman’s story:

“None of that hoping and believing girl was left in Sylvia now or at least she couldn’t be found. The woman she was now didn’t yearn for sophistication, and as far as she could tell she’d stopped yearning for much at all. The woman she’d become was fat and weighed down, but not just fat, dumb too, and always in the process of adjusting, like there was two of everything, the real thing and the shimmering copy that her brain had to work with focus and concentration to integrate. Her brain in slow-mo or she felt slow–same difference. The result was the girl she’d been had evaporated from her body like an emancipated soul.”

What I like is that Sylvia makes an honest appraisal of herself here. She is not eliciting pity–simply telling the truth.

I find that refreshing.

That is why I liked No One Is Coming to Save Us. Although it first seemed to focus on the deprivation of a black community in the South, I quickly saw it isn’t only about the African-American South or even about poverty in the contemporary South. It is about the American Dream and how these people, in this special place and time, define it, how they lose it or make it come true.

My next book review will be about the next Western Carolina University Book Club read, Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy. I have seen the movie version of the book, too, so maybe it will be a book/movie comparison. Spoiler alert: the book is better than the movie, but the movie is very good.

Also, I will soon be unveiling the 2020 fall/winter edition of Teach. Write.: A Writing Teachers’ Literary Journal, slated to appear October 1.

So come back!!

Mrs. Winkler Keeps Reading

Updated June 16, 2020

NOTE: Scroll to the end to see additions to this review. CAUTION: SPOILERS

I joined an online book club for Western Carolina University alumni, and The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg is the first book we are reading. The book has given me some food for thought and its simple formula for changing habit (cue, routine, reward) has been actually working for me. I have completed short yoga routines for 80 days in a row and am regularly meeting my quota of 600 words a day towards completion of my novel, writing six of seven days a week for the past three weeks, just to name two examples.

Not bad.

One of the main themes of the book is not trying to suppress bad habits but to replace bad habits with positive ones through changing the routine. Duhigg explains and gives examples of the idea that habits are born of cues that trigger the behavior and lead to some kind of reward. He calls it The Golden Rule of Habit Change: “You can’t extinguish an old habit. You can only change it.”

He shows how this works by using a multitude of examples. In the first part of the book he shows how mainly positive examples, including Tony Dungy, coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who changed the team’s habits to eventually lead them to the Super Bowl and Bob Wilson, the founder of AA, how the program’s success for so many people comes in part from establishing new habits.

But in both cases, Duhigg talks about belief, not necessarily a spiritual belief, but some sort of faith must be present to successfully form good habits and this faith is normally found by being part of a group.

The chapter that will be most useful to me as a teacher is “Chapter 5: Starbucks and the Habit of Success.” This chapter talks about how Starbucks had become a powerhouse coffeehouse chain by, simply put, teaching willpower. At the same time, Starbucks has found that giving employees a voice is one of the ways to help develop the self-discipline and willpower needed to train and retain productive employees.

The implications for teaching are obvious–our students need to have more power over what they are learning. If they feel they have choice, they will be more likely to exhibit the self-control necessary to complete their studies

Interesting.

One of the most relevant parts of the book for today is “Chapter 6: The Power of a Crisis.” Duhigg gives an example of a Rhode Island hospital that made radical changes for the better by changing institutional habits following the senseless death of one of their patients.

Following the example, Duhigg states:

“But sometimes, even destructive habits can be transformed by leaders who know how to seize the right opportunities. Sometimes, in the heat of a crisis, the right habits emerge.”

Updated June 16, 2020

In response to a question posed by our book club leader, I wrote the following about the chapter in the book I appreciate in some ways but took exception to in others:

Overall, I have a positive reaction to the book and its author, but my perspective changed quite a bit towards both as I was reading Chapter 7, especially the Target example. The author seemed to treat this example in a positive light at first–as if intrusion into a woman’s reproductive privacy is no big deal. It is only when the marketing team and the data researcher finally question whether his intrusive data collection would actually make money or not that they apparently begin to question how pregnant women might feel.

Interesting also that the author gives an example of an angry father to make his point about negative reactions from the public. I found myself wondering what was happening to the poor young woman who was the daughter of that angry father. How did she feel about the father talking to a manager at Target about her pregnancy? Did the father kick her out of the house because she got pregnant? Did father and daughter reconcile? Is he forcing her to keep the child or marry, or not marry, the father of her child against her wishes? How does the young woman’s mother feel about all of this? But none of this matters to the data collectors or the author of the book, it seems. Maybe it does, but not enough to find out and give examples of how any individual woman feels about this kind of marketing strategy, I guess.

Perhaps the author being a male and the subject of his example being a male was my cue to go to the routine of rolling my eyes at this obtuse behavior. The reward is another great example for my students of sexism and manipulative advertising tactics.

After reading this chapter I was reminded how important it is to continue teaching my students about the power of persuasive techniques that are legal but border on, or are downright, unethical but widely accepted as the norm because they make a lot of money. It is up to my students as consumers to use critical thinking when viewing advertising and recognize the incredible powers of data-driven marketing. It is up to me as their instructor to provide proof of these questionable tactics and for that, I am grateful to the author and his book.

One final question: Why did the author not comment on the initial question the marketers asked the mathematician to solve?

Here’s the question: “Can your computers figure out which customers are pregnant, even if they don’t want us to know?” (182). (Emphasis mine).

That’s okay? I guess so because “Figuring out whose pregnant…could make Target millions of dollars” (184), and this little gem “So for companies, pregnant women are goldmines” (192). Oh, I get it. Priorities.

I think if there is a new edition, Duhigg should consider leaving out Chapter 7. It was the reason I gave the book four stars instead of five. At the very least, he should spend some time trying to get at least one pregnant woman’s view of this kind of advertising.

I know I have harped on the bad, but there is much good to be gleaned from the book as well, so I am glad I read it and have taken part in the discussion.