A Novel I Couldn’t Refuse: Mario Puzo’s The Godfather (a book review)

Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather opens with a quote from Balzac: “Behind every great fortune there is a crime.” For those of you not well versed in your 19th century French writers, Honore de Balzac is considered by many to be the father of French Realism, Balzac is, perhaps, best known for his novel Le Père Goriot (1835), a novel translated as Father Goriot for us non-French reading commoners. Balzac also authored a series of short stories he gathered into a giant collection he called the Human Comedy. (Well, he called it  La Comédie Humaine but I’m writing American here so cut me some slack.)

Labeling Balzac a Realist, in many ways, reduces his contribution to world literature. Fellow countryman Marie-Henri Beyle (who wrote under the pen name Stendahl) once described the goal of Realism, and I paraphrase and translate, to provide a mirror walking down the road. Both Balzac’s novel and Stendahl’s great novel The Red and the Black are far more than simply reflections of society, but the common idea was that each writer (and, in fact, the job of the writer) was to accurately reflect, to offer a mimetic sense if you will, of the world in which they exist.

Doing so and doing well, though, involves delving into the human psyche, probing culture, and carefully crafting the images we see in that mirror. In many ways, calling Balzac and Stendahl Realists limits their contributions to both the literary world and our understanding of that larger human narrative. Like so many great writers, their works get categorized so they fit neatly in a variety of anthologies and “eras” and readers often ignore their other qualities.

In many ways, Puzo’s novel suffers the the same reductive fate. I will willingly admit that I’m a fan of the film. The Godfather (1972) and Godfather Part II (1972) are cinematic masterpieces that epitomize 1970’s American film making. Director Francis Ford Coppola rejected the pretty beach blanket boys and girls of the ’60s and took us into the dirty, gritty city streets with that cinema verite that seems a direct descendant of Balzac and Stendahl.

I’ll also admit that I’ve had a copy of Puzo’s novel on my book shelf for so long that when I cracked the spine and started reading the other day whole chapters fell out onto the floor. I have never read the novel, partly I’ll admit, because I’ve simply assumed Puzo had given us a crime novel (with all the formulaic connotations such a tag implies) that would be superficial, shallow, and filled with stereotypical, flat characters.

Like Goodfellas only on the printed page. (Sorry. That’s a cheap shot but I stand by it. I love Ray Liotta, but that stare has always been just a tad melodramatic for me. I’m not sure if his new tequila commercial is parody or serious?)

Fortunately, I’m man enough to admit I’m wrong. (Mostly because I have so much practice. At being wrong not being a man. No practice necessary for that, of course.)

Certainly, the novel has its fair share of stock characters and stereotypes. Too many of the Italian men have slicked back pompadours and Puzo writes about sex like a man who read too many letters to Playboy, but we also get a deep and insightful examination of one family’s desire to fight for, not against, it’s share of the American dream. In many ways, Puzo gives us a novel that is, at times, incredibly critical of how power is distributed and deeply intertwined with economic prosperity. Don Corleone is simply modeling corporate America on a smaller, and at times more violent, scale.

The Corleone’s recognize the disparity of power and economic possibilities early in the novel and spend years working within the system while alternately gaming the system as a means to gain power so that their “children would grow in a different world. They would be doctors, artists, scientists. Governors. Presidents. Anything at all. He would see to it that they joined the general family of humanity.”

Giving his family this opportunity requires that the Don, and his son Michael, make decisions outside the accepted norms of the social system because, quite simply, the system within which they exist restricts access to power for immigrants and the poor. We see, early in the novel, the oppressive conditions in which immigrant and poor families exist. In many ways, then, Puzo’s novel both criticizes and glorifies American society.

But what makes Puzo’s novel so interesting, it seems to me, is his emphasis and focus on Italian-Americans. The willingness to trumpet the values and humanity of “hyphenated” Americans in 1969 reflects a burgeoning civil rights movement that is starting to find legs in American culture while at the same time showing us, holding that mirror up on the path to prosperity, the seedy underbelly of the sacrifices necessary to achieve power in America. The men and women in this novel are definitively American and they believe in America, but they also have refused to shy away from or reject their deeply embedded cultural heritage. America is not about assimilation for Puzo: the Corleone’s spend most of the novel living in a small compound that keeps the outside world at bay.

What America provides, though, for those men willing to take it, Puzo seems to argue, is an opportunity to gain access to the halls of power if you are smart enough to bring men together and appeal to their reason. (Or, at the least, make an offer they can’t refuse.) But America is also about remembering your past and holding on to those ancestral, deeply embedded cultural identities that provide the narrative of who we were, Puzo seems to say. Bringing those two things together might not be pretty, but the successes and failures are all, the novel seems to imply, part of the growth, part of the culture, and part of America.

Balzac, I think, would have been proud.

 

The Precious Ordinary: A Review of Kent Haruf’s novel Benediction

When I teach Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, my students are often befuddled by the play’s simplicity. Nothing, they tell me, really happens in Grover’s Corners. People are born, get married, and die. 

Well, I say in my most professorial voice, they also have breakfast, eat lunch, go to school, kiss, drink beer, sing in the choir, and sleep late whenever possible. Those are pretty easy to forget, though.

Like the people in Grover’s Corners, I point out, it’s easy to read past the simple seeking the complex. Too many people, Wilder argues, spend their lives looking for the extra-ordinary event, expecting magic and excitement. We forget, as his characters remind us, that the bulk of our existence is dominated by the average and everyday. 

How many hours are in a week? A year? Twenty years? I ask.

How many hours of those hours are exciting and magical?

It’s often a disconcerting answer for 18 year old students when they realize they will spend more of their lives eating breakfast on Monday mornings than experiencing life-changing events. And you should see their faces when I ask them how many hours they spend in the bathroom.

We must, Wilder seems to propose, remember to appreciate the ordinary moments. What makes Wilder’s play such a fine work of art, though, is his ability to craft a work whose form supports and mirrors its function. The stage is stripped bare, the characters simple. The dialogue reflects the core values of the play.

It is a mistake, though, to assume Wilder is imploring us to adopt a kind of carpe diem philosophy. Appreciating and valuing the ordinary is different from seizing the day. Everyday life, Grover’s Corners shows us, isn’t great and wonderful. But we must live all of our days, not just the fun ones.

In many ways, American writer Kent Haruf carries on Wilder’s literary tradition. His novels, all set in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado, reflect the flat lands of eastern Colorado. The characters embody the cold, dry plains of an American mid-west that consistently sees itself outside the mainstream of cultural change. His language is sparse, direct, and driven by narrative necessity. We might encounter philosophical moments in Haruf’s novels, but we rarely find philosophical characters. The narratives of these character’s lives are built in the concrete particulars of their actions. 

His novels aren’t driven by politics or complex, self-reflective characters searching for truth in troubling times. Like Wilder, Haruf focuses on story and character, allowing us to witness the every day, ordinary, simple lives of the men and women who people his novels.

Benediction (2013) begins as Dad Lewis and his longtime wife Mary learn he has cancer. The opening chapter ends with Dad telling his wife he “might get me some kind of better grade of beer before I go. . . . If I can get it around here.” His follows this dry humor with the simple observation that “he was dying. That’s what they were saying. He would be dead before the end of the summer. By the beginning of September the dirt would be piled over what was left of him out at the cemetery three miles east of town. Someone would cut his name into the face of a tombstone and it would be as if he never was.”

It’s a powerful opening that holds throughout the novel as we witness Dad Lewis’ final days. His wife Mary and his daughter Lorraine, on leave from her job in Denver, help ease his passing. There is an emphasis on Dad’s failing bodily functions and his wife’s willingness to help him maintain some semblance of dignity. As the days pass, we learn about Dad’s life via his visitors, flashbacks, other characters in the town. Intermingled with Dad’s story, we read about Berta May and her granddaughter, Reverend Rob Lyle and his family, and Willa and Alene. Everyone, Haruf shows us, has a story and these lives are a part of the tapestry of daily life in Holt.

No one, though, is perfect. Reverend Lyle’s family is slowly falling apart and his sermon about faith and forgiveness in a time of war costs him his congregation and his family. Alice lives with Berta May after her mother dies; Alene has moved in with her mother after teaching elementary school and having a long-time affair with a married man.

And we learn that Dad Lewis and Mary have a homosexual son who has been effectively banished by intolerance and ignorance. Franklin Lewis looms large as an absent presence throughout the narrative. He visits Dad’s hallucinatory memories. Dad admits, at the end and too late, his ignorance and he realizes what he lost.

At the same time, though, Haruf reminds us such deathbed conversions aren’t so simple and we have to be careful judging people too harshly. Dad Lewis’ life was one filled with success, hard work, and he has “come a long way” from his hardscrabble childhood on a Kansas farm. He abandoned his son, but we also know he saved other lives. Life, we realize reading the novel, isn’t a simple ledger where we subtract the negatives from the positives and hope we come out with more checks than minuses. Throughout the novel, in fact, we recognize in the simple daily lives of the characters that the men and women here are simply trying to live day to day.

There is no doubt there is pain in Haruf’s world. Dad Lewis’s son abandons the family after being bullied and rejected, Rob Lyle is attacked one night and his son attempts suicide. Alene and Lorraine live, in many ways, lives of quiet desperation wondering why they can’t find the same loving companionship their parents had.

Like Wilder’s Grover’s Corners, though, Dad Lewis and others are too often missing something. Late in the novel, Rob Lyle is wondering the streets late at night. He “stood in front of houses  . . . watching people. The little drama, the routine moments.” He goes out that night hoping, he tells a local policeman who stops to question him, to “recapture something.” He thought he would see “people being hurtful.” Instead, he finds “the sweet kindness of one person to another. Just time passing on a summer’s night.”

There are no grand epiphanies for Haruf’s characters. His novels end quietly, venturing slowly toward the closing pages. As readers, we enter the novel searching, perhaps, for what’s “behind the curtains,” but we find instead “the precious ordinary.” At the end of the day, and the end of the novel, the “days turned cold and the leaves dropped off the trees.” Dad Lewis was buried. Life goes one.

And that ordinariness, that simplicity, Haruf seems to say, is the greatest blessing and, perhaps, the only benediction we need.

The Best Teachers in the World, According to John E. Chubb (A Review)

chubbcover

Click on the link.

One of the great things about working at a university is easy access to books. By training and desire, I’m inclined toward contemporary novels. I’ll read the occasional dead writer, but there’s something about knowing the writer I’m reading is sitting in a room somewhere struggling to turn a phrase. Like sticking your toe in the Pacific and knowing you are connected to someone in Japan, reading someone alive creates one of those unspoken bonds that seem both inexplicable and unbreakable.

Periodically, though, I’ll pick up other kinds of books that look interesting. (I’m a big fan of judging books by their covers.) A while back, I read through Michael Hess’ Cage-Busting Leadership. Hess reminds us that leadership is more than simply managing. Leaders break out of the cages bureaucracies create and accomplish great things.

More recently, I’ve been reading John E. Chubb’s The Best Teachers in the World: Why we don’t have them and how we could. I’ll admit I picked the book up initially because there is this cool graphic of an apple that looks like a globe but I’m interested in how America can improve our educational system. As Chubb points out, America spends as much on public education as most developed countries, but we have the least to show for it.

On the one hand, and Chubb readily admits this, we are also one of the only industrialized nations that tries to educate everyone. Far too often, critics of education fail to recognize or admit that external factors play a major role on student achievement. Essentially, 10 year olds don’t learn math if they are hungry or dealing with emotional stress.

But Chubb also points to examples of schools that overcome these external pressures and produce high achieving students despite the emotional and physical issues facing them. The core idea of Chubb’s argument is relatively simple (and, it seems, obvious): good schools are mostly a combination of good principals and good teachers.

Duh.

I’m not downplaying Chubb’s argument. He does an excellent job, like Hess before him, of reminding us that teaching is complex and difficult, but running a school that educates kids isn’t rocket science. If we want the best teachers in the world, Chubb tells us, we need to ensure the best and brightest students become teachers and we need to let the school leaders reward those stars (and fire the duds). Chubb gives us a variety of stunning statistics, but the most impressive among them is the relatively low average SAT scores for college students who go into teaching.

Thirty years ago our teachers were smarter than the students who graduated. Not so much anymore. Too many teachers, Chubb tells us, would not meet the target SAT scores we’ve set for our high schoolers.

It’s a little bit like the blind leading the blind. No offense to the blind.

Chubb also reiterates for us that good schools are run by good principals who have the power and ability to truly run their schools. Too many principals are hamstrung by school boards, state regulations, parents, and teacher groups, effectively forcing them into defensive management roles. The live through the day simply putting out fires without ever having the power to get rid of the arsonist.

But what makes Chubb’s book so interesting is his discussion of teacher education programs. There are, Chubb tells us, around 3.2 million public school teachers in America. These teachers, on average, not the best and brightest. Certainly, a major part of the problem is compensation. Teachers “once earned over 80 percent of the wages of other college graduates, today teachers earn about 65 percent.” Worse yet, at the rate with which we churn through teachers (some estimates tell us 50% of all new teachers quit within 5 years), 20% of all new bachelor’s degrees will need to be in teacher education.

So, we need 1/5 of all graduates to choose a low wage, high stress job.

You don’t need a fully developed frontal lobe to know that’s a bad idea.

While I think Chubb puts a little too much faith in the use of technology to help solve our problems (he estimates we could reduce our teacher workforce by around 17 %), he argues nicely that we can leverage some technology, especially in skills based instruction, to free up our teachers for better (and more useful) interaction with small groups.

But the most important thing Chubb points out is that we simply must change the way we certify and train teachers.

We must create schools and colleges of Education that emphasize the intellectual complexity of teaching not by focusing on educational theory but by re-emphasizing the importance of content mastery.

In other words, if you are going to teach math, you should have a math degree. He points to Peabody College at Vanderbilt as the prime example of a program that is rigorous and successful. The basics are pretty simple: students start in the classroom their freshman year of college and they must double major. The classes are rigorous, demanding, and intellectually stimulating, classes that tend to attract the brightest kids.

In essence, Chubb shows us that teaching is not for below average students.

Yet, we are consistently filling classrooms with such graduates.

And wondering why our students under-perform.

Clearly, education is a complicated and difficult task but the solutions are often far simpler than we imagine. Like any other profession, if we higher the best people, hold them accountable for specific, realistic goals, and reward them, we get better performance. Chubb, like Hess in his book, shows us a path.

The rest of us simply need to start walking down that trial. We need to push universities to revise teacher education programs and pressure politicians to let them. Schools need to focus on hiring strong principals and getting out their way.

Most importantly, though, we need to all begin creating a climate where teaching is a profession that we respect and reward.

Things I Read

And Things I Learned

Washington Monthly

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Joanne Jacobs

Thinking and Linking by Joanne Jacobs

Inside Higher Ed

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

NYT > U.S. > Politics

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Balloon Juice

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Dilbert Daily Strip

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

The Full Feed from HuffingtonPost.com

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)