DRAMA HIGH: The Incredible True Story of a Brilliant Teacher, a Struggling Town, and the Magic of Theater
By Michael Sokolove
Riverhead, 338 pp., illustrated, $27.95
What does it take to build a nationally recognized high school drama department? For that matter, what does it take to become a great teacher? The task doesn’t require a wealthy, sophisticated student body, as Lou Volpe proved in his four decades at Truman High School in Levittown, Pa. In “Drama High,” author Michael Sokolove, one of Volpe’s former students, follows young actors and their teachers for two seasons of casting, rehearsal, and performance. The program’s record of success — because of its repeat appearances at the nation’s premiere high school festival, Sokolove compares it to “a college basketball team that keeps making it back to the Final Four” — offers a rare opportunity for students and a rebuke to those who would cut funding for public school arts and humanities. One former student credits Volpe with the lesson that “closeness and respect are not mutually exclusive”; others found the course of their lives changed after working in one of his plays. Thoughtful and brimming with empathy, Sokolove’s book is a testament to the power of teachers, as well as the unexpected brilliance of youth.
Along the way, Sokolove revists his hometown, a place of declining incomes and stunted ambitions. The Levittown of his childhood, Sokolove writes, may have been culturally bereft but was capable of providing jobs enough to raise the three or more kids growing up in every identical house. Today’s families are still hard working, but the jobs have departed, and parents are struggling; nearly every student Sokolove meets is affected by “the steady, low-simmering tumult of economic and family instability.” Still, he writes, these kids “have not been raised as delicate flowers. The community has deficits, but also strengths.” The Truman drama kids lack diction coaches and other advantages their more cosmopolitan peers enjoy, but they know how to work hard, win or lose. And in a teacher like Volpe, they know they are loved.
SOME NERVE: Lessons Learned While Becoming Brave
By Patty Chang Anker
Riverhead, 356 pp., $27.95
It’s fitting that a book about fear should begin with its author in a swimsuit, atop a high-dive, dozens of people staring at her. Following a triumphant (if inelegant) dive, the book’s next chapter chronicles a disastrous attempt to be daring on the high seas, resulting in a broken foot. The author is Patty Chang Anker, blogger and yoga instructor, dutiful daughter and loving, imperfect mother, and her first book blends memoir and journalism in her quest to understand and conquer fear.
“At times, life feels safe, the world comfortable and known,” Anker writes. But for her — and many readers — even relatively benign situations can unleash paralyzing fears. As she confronts her own difficulty purging her home of clutter, or joins Toastmasters International to meet people striving to speak confidently in public, Anker grounds her observations in her own generous, warm world view. She’s at her wisest, funniest best when describing conversations with her two daughters, capturing both their fears and their fierce, childish courage.
SWINGLAND: Between the Sheets of the Secretive, Sometime Messy, but Always Adventurous Swinging Lifestyle
By Daniel Stern
Touchstone, 320 pp., $26
There’s a certain kind of book in which a talented, sensitive journalist offers a guided tour through an insular, strange, fringe community. Such books, at their best, expand our understanding of the world by carefully investigating one odd, mostly ignored corner of it.
Susan Orlean’s “The Orchid Thief” is an example; Daniel Stern’s “Swingland” is not.
Less a guided tour than an annotated diary, “Swingland” is Stern’s account of his own entry and exploits in the world of sex with no strings attached (what participants call “the Lifestyle”). Although he warns early on that his ideal reader “must possess an open mind and a certain level of curiosity,” Stern leaves out some additional useful characteristics: a high tolerance for cliché, a strong stomach (for passages about the pool with “a thin film on its surface”), and a fondness for how-to lists (what to bring to a sex club, dos and don’ts of sleeping with another persons’ spouse, and so on).
The overall impression is more sad than sexy.
THE XX FACTOR: How the Rise of Working Women Has Created a Far Less Equal World
By Alison Wolf
Crown, 416 pp., $26
Social mobility isn’t what it once was. In Alison Wolf’s new book, women’s changing educational and economic roles are not hailed as revolutionary — or even altogether positive. The English academic argues instead that, while women from elite backgrounds now enter a professional world less divided than it once was, an ever-growing population of working-class women are doing professionally tasks that all women once did at home (child care, cleaning).
It’s the kind of thesis that grabs attention but whether it rings true may depend somewhat on how one interprets the data. Wolf’s vision of a gender-integrated business elite crumbles when one looks at fields such as hedge-fund managers; she describes working women outsourcing their children’s care to au pairs and nannies but doesn’t explain how this is different from wealthy families of earlier eras. Where the book rings most true is in its critique of a society where previous gains seem to be shrinking — there are no more Horatio Alger stories — but how this is the result of women working remains unclear.