Monday, January 14, 2019

JOANNE V. CREIGHTON SPEAKS OF THE CHALLENGES OF LEADING A WOMAN'S COLLEGE IN HER RICHLY NUANCED MEMOIR!



During the Summer 2018, I had the opportunity to visit Mt. Holyoke College not long after my 40th reunion.  While there I dropped by the College bookstore, i.e. The Odyssey Bookstore. In doing so, I ran into a display of Joanne V. Creighton’s book, “The Educational Odyssey of Woman College President". For those who are interested, Joanne V. Creighton (the V stands for “Vanish”) was the 17th President of Mt. Holyoke college from 1996 - 2010, a crucial 15 year period in the history of the College. 

During her tenure at Mt. Holyoke College, Joanne Creighton initiated the Plans For Mt. Holyoke for 2003 and 2010 which led to the creation of three new interdisciplinary centers: the Weissman Center for Leadership and the Liberal Arts, the McCulloch Center for Global Initiatives, and the Center for the Environment.” Upon stepping down from this position, Ms. Creighton continued on to become Interim President of Haverford College.

Joanne V. Creighton's journey took her from the small town of Pound, Wisconsin to Wayne State University in Detroit, UNC-Greensboro, Wesleyan University, to Mt. Holyoke College, and then, as I have said, To Haverford.

During the start of her tenure at the Mt. Holyoke College, President Creighton led Mt. Holyoke through a period of turbulence. When she began as President, Mt. Holyoke was in severe economic distress.  This required that the school switch from a needs blind to a needs sensitive public policy. Ms. Creighton provides a detailed explanation of how this issue developed not only for Mt. Holyoke College, but for institutions of higher learning all over the country.  Students protested this change because they were concerned about the College’s commitment to low cost and accessible education for its students.

During this confrontation between administrators and students, President Creighton led the way to finding a reasonable compromise with student leaders so that the school could continue its mission to educate students from all economic backgrounds, while maintaining its financial stability. Although this incident must have been really frustrating for President Creighton, I was actually encouraged to hear of how socially active students were about this issue.  Too often, in the late 70s, I recall Mt. Holyoke students being disengaged and disinterested in social injustice. I'm glad to know students are now speaking up and speaking out.  We want graduates of Mt. Holyoke to be movers and shakers and leaders.  It seems that Creighton was able to interact with the protesters in a way that led to a positive outcome, without unnecessarily squashing the spark of revolutionary spirit among students.

Another challenge Joanne Creighton faced was the widely publicized suspension of Prof. Joseph Ellis, a historian who admitted he lied to students about having served in Vietnam. He was suspended from the college for a year. She talks about both of these crises in a very crisp, precise, and absorbing narrative in successive chapters of the book.

As an initial comment, I will say that I was disappointed at the production quality of this book. The delightful cover photo of President Creighton is a tad fuzzy, and there were some other difficulties in the book which I felt should have been addressed, given the stature of the subject. I think the book would have benefited from an index, and I don’t think it would have been that hard to create one. I am surprised that a more prestigious publishing company with greater resources could not have taken on this book in order to enhance the work itself, its look and access to marketing and distribution.

I did see that the University of Massachusetts Press has been listed as a distributor of the book—perhaps all this press does is distribution. However, as I say, I was disappointed and I felt that the book should have gotten much more care in terms of the quality of the production of the book. I was also rather dissatisfied that the Odyssey Bookstore had an author reading and bookstore signing with Joanne V. Creighton for this book, yet it was not filmed and posted on Youtube. Overall, I felt like Mt. Holyoke could treat its own a little better in regard to this book.

I’m not the kind of person who would ordinarily read such an autobiography which I usually associate with Mt. Holyoke College advertising campaigns and with pleas for additional contributions. In fact, this book wasn’t anything of the kind and I am really happy that I picked up the book, despite initial misgivings.

I have never understood colleges and universities from the perspective of a leader managing large and complex institutions, marshaling diverse and often mutually hostile faculty, attempting to find a common vision, and then encouraging a broadly diverse group of students, administrators and faculty to follow it. I was impressed with Joanne Creighton's description of her leadership style as one of "orchestrating shared governance" and she described many critical incidences of this approach throughout her book. So much of it involved identifying the strengths and weaknesses of the colleges and universities where she served, and exploiting those qualities for the benefit of those institutions themselves.  Doing so ensured the survival of these institutions into the future and enhanced their performance in order to achieve the goal of educating America’s young people effectively. I found Joanne Creighton's detailed descriptions of how this is done, the struggles academic leadership have behind closed doors, quite revelatory and insightful.

I particularly found Joanne Creighton's early exploration of the interaction between women and girls in Chapter 2 of the book--“Sisters”--extremely interesting. For me, the discussion established an understanding of the gender dynamics that uniquely impact women in positions of leadership.  Creighton displays considerable wisdom in her discussion of the way in which relationships between sisters can be complicated by destructive competition, power imbalances, family dysfunction, and other powerful forces. No matter how much you may love and share so much with an older or younger sister in terms of what you have grown up with, you can still experience major divisions in your relationship due to misunderstandings, jealousy of the other sister’s achievements, as well as other issues. Joanne Creighton richly explores not only sisterhood between real sisters, but also in terms of women’s relationships with other women, their friendships and their professional relationships with other successful women.

As examples, she uses her relationship with her own sister, also highly successful in her own right. Further, she explores the relationship of the two sisters Margaret Drabble and A.S. Byatt, and her own relationship intellectual and social with the writer Joyce Carol Oates. In this core chapter, Joanne Creighton looks at the complex and ambivalent manner in which women of achievement relate to other women who are similarly achieving.  She looks at the issue within the context of family, friendships, and career.  She then develops the subject further in subsequent chapters and most particularly in her discussion of her experiences as President of Mt. Holyoke College. For all women, most particularly graduates of women’s colleges, this issue of women’s relationships with other women has particular relevance to our lives, and this makes the book’s focus extremely valuable reading.

As I read this book, I began to understand exactly why President Creighton ended up as President of Mt. Holyoke. Here is a quite delightful individual, charming, modest, committed in every way to higher education and the liberal arts. At the same time, she is well able to state her truths and articulate tough realities in such a disarming manner that it is extremely difficult to find her offensive. I give her a lot of credit for having such a balanced view of the institutions she served, for seeing where she could take their strengths, and use them to mitigate their weaknesses.

Finally, she has some very interesting comments to make regarding the future of women’s education overall.  This might make people uncomfortable, but she does challenge us to consider whether it remains relevant or viable in the modern world.  These thoughts and ideas are a quite valuable source of discussion as well. Again, for any graduate of a woman’s college, for anyone considering the future of women’s education and leadership, this is a really outstanding book.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

WHAT CAN YOU DO WHEN YOU DON'T EVEN GET "HALF A CHILD"? WILLIAM J. MCGEE ON A FATHER WHO LOVES HIS CHILD!


“Half a Child” is an incredibly moving story of a father who tries to maintain his stability and nurture his relationship with his son from the ages of two to five in the aftermath of divorce.  His struggle is conducted in the shadow of a family court system that completely disregards his role as a father.  Remarkably, the court does nothing to safeguard this father's relationship with his son despite the ongoing assault on that relationship via the other parent.  This story moved me deeply to the point where I kept on thinking of the story as a real story, even though it is a completely fictional account.  While Mr. McGee did undergo a very serious divorce of his own, which informs the novel, as he kept on repeating to me while the tears ran down my cheeks, it is indeed fiction.

At the beginning of the book, “Half a Child” by William J. McGee, the main character, Michael Mullen, speculates, “I don’t know that later I will say if I had known all the things I had not known at this time, I would have killed myself…”  As a family court victim myself, I feel that so many of us would make this statement, i.e. that if we had known the suffering and profound pain we had lying ahead of us, we might have killed ourselves right up front rather than endure what we ended up having to go through.  This is the most profound condemnation of the family court system itself, i.e. the fact that it evokes such images of desperation and despair in so many of the people who end up forced to use their services.  

The book pursues several themes with which family court victims are familiar.  For instance, right at the start of the book, Mr. Mullen’s ex simply seizes $14,000 from their joint bank account and the money never gets seen again!  

However, the most central issue is the Mother’s insistence upon first moving from New York City to Indiana with the child for a full year, and then subsequent to that choosing to move to Israel.  How is Michael Mullen supposed to maintain a relationship with their child if the other parent keeps on moving vast distances away?  Why can't Michael Mullen’s ex wife, a Ph.D. in psychology, obtain work in one of the best job markets in the country for psychologists?  Repeatedly, Mr. Mullen tries to get the family court system to address this issue of relocation in a fair and equitable manner, or even consider that he might just be the better primary parent, and repeatedly the system just gives the mother whatever she wants. 

There are mediation sessions, therapy sessions, and hearings, all of which disregard the bottom line truth—that if you can’t ever see your child on a daily basis, you can’t exactly have a decent relationship.  Instead, Michael Mullen ends up being the focus of vicious attempts to inflate minor incidents and reinterpret them as somehow damaging to the child. The most dramatic part of this novel is when Michael Mullen’s ex refuses to return their child for his scheduled time with his Dad.  This leads to international legal action to retrieve the child.  Nonetheless, remarkably enough, the mother still ends up with custody and the father is, for the better part, shut out of the life of his child. 

The consequence of this protracted legal battle of four years is the deterioration in Michael Mullen’s physical and mental health, even to the point where he puts lives at risk in his job as an air traffic controller.  In addition, his incompetent attorney drains him and his family of thousands and thousands of dollars.  Still, it is important to note that this is not a grim book. You end up knowing that Michael Mullen, a committed father if there is one, will somehow find a way to making sure he preserves that relationship with his child.   Further, if there is anything I can say, it is that this book is full of insight, some absolutely amusing moments, and intensely moving interactions between father and son.  I also want to give a shout out to Mr. Mullen’s car “Lovey”—talking about personality, the car is a character in its own right.

"Half a Child" is very respectful of both fathers and mothers dealing with the challenges of family court matters.  While it is honest regarding the intensity of the pain involved in a custody matter, it is by no means bitter or mean spirited.  However, I do want to launch one criticism at this book, which is that it promotes the idea that mothers have all the rights in family court at the expense of fathers.  As a long time, family court reform advocate, I can state categorically that the court is absolutely corrupt and vicious towards both genders, and that many speculate that since the establishment of the fatherhood initiative the advantage is solely in the fathers’ side.  This is an issue that requires further exploration.

William McGee is a native of New York City and obtained an MFA in fiction from Columbia University.  He has taught creative writing within a number of different contexts, and is the author of the book “Attention All Passengers” an expose of the airline industry.  At one point he was Editor-in-Chief of “Consumer Reports Travel Letter”.  He was formerly in the U.S. Air Force Auxiliary and has worked in airline flight operations.  He is currently living in CT and being a Dad is an extremely important part of his life.

Like many people who have worked to create an outstanding piece of literary work which challenges a tough subject, Mr. McGee was unable to obtain a traditional publishing company to take on this book. As a consequence, it has been self published with the assistance of some outstanding professionals.  For instance, the striking cover design of two cars each with a parent and “half the child” is by Eric Hoffsten.  While this means that William McGee won’t have the top down traditional support of the publishing industry, I am impressed with how Mr. McGee has more than made up for this with his outstanding writing as well as his willingness to reach out to his audience wherever they are available—at bookstores, online, and at libraries.  I believe he can count on the grassroots to understand, appreciate and embrace his work, and I would encourage everyone to be a part of that movement.

As a final note, for this novel William J. McGee placed as a semi-finalist in the James Jones First Novel competition.  He also placed as a semi-finalist in the William Faulkner Creative Writing competition.  

Sunday, June 24, 2018

"TRACER" BY ROB BOFFARD: WILL THE HUMAN RACE SURVIVE?

I would start this review of "Tracer" with an exciting intro, but since the author, Rob Boffard, himself has provided one for me (see below), I don't really have to!   



I hope everyone got that!  There is absolutely nothing dull about this guy--trust me.  He is smart, sharp, and honest.

"Tracer" is the story of Riley Hale, a young courier, one of a group, who runs around a decaying space station called "Outer Earth" which contains almost 1 million people. She delivers various items in exchange for food, drugs, and whatever she is able to barter for.  Central to these couriers' survival is the agreement that they will never look inside the packages they are carrying.  In this futuristic dystopia, Earth was long ago destroyed in a nuclear war and the remnants of humanity are struggling to survive in the space station despite food shortages, gang violence, crime, and an increasingly disengaged leadership.  

As the story begins, Riley is taking a new order over to the gardens when she is assailed by the Lieren gang and relieved of her delivery.  At first she thinks she is done for, but then the Lieren slink away once they discover what she has been carrying--an eyeball!  Riley is shocked to see the eyeball, but she quickly repacks it and delivers it to the customer.  

Thinking everything is fine, Riley returns to the hideout or "nest" where the rest of her team--the devil dancers--live off the grid.  But "no" the delivery has triggered the final phase of an ongoing plot that the Human Extinction Movement has been masterminding to destroy the space station and thus what remains of the human race.  

Can Riley and her fellow couriers known as the devil dancers overcome all the obstacles in their way and save the station?  

As a major explosion rips through the food producing sector of the Space Station, and the villain Oren Darnell takes control of the Station and begins to shut it down in preparation for its complete destruction, we can only bite our nails in anticipation of what could be the end of all humanity.  

If there is one word I'd use to describe this book, I'd say it's a romp, because as soon as you begin reading one event pulls you rapidly into another and then another at a breathtaking pace and it becomes impossible to put it down.  It only took me two days to finish this book because I found the narrative so absorbing and the dilemmas kept me so on edge I couldn't bear to stop reading until I found out what was going to happen.  

So let me tell you a little bit about Rob Boffard, the author of this book. Unfortunately, like many new authors, Rob Boffard essentially wants you to guess who he is because his "meet the author" page at the end of the book is two sentences long.  The basic information you get is that he is from South Africa and moves from location to location, i.e from London, to Vancouver, and then to Johannesburg and back around again.  As his day job, for the last ten years he has worked as a journalist for media outlets such as "The Guardian", "Wired", and other locations.  He is around 33 years old, and is married.  

But that is pretty much the bare bones information we have about Mr. Boffard; there is a bit more on his website, but don't hold your breath for it.  Keeping the facts to yourself is kind of a Sci Fi, Fantasy author thing to do, as I've noticed.  These kinds of authors just seem to hate including acknowledgement pages like everyone else has.  There is no, "And I thank my next door neighbor, Doug, for making this book possible."  None of that.   Plus, Rob Boffard is too cool for that kind of chitter chatter anyway.  

I would say overall that "Tracer" was a really exciting book to read and I enjoyed it incredibly.  That said it is a first book and it does have upsides and downsides.  I'll give you the downsides first.  

To a certain extent Mr. Boffard doesn't work sufficiently hard enough developing motivation with his characters which means that they can come across as one dimensional and there isn't that layered feel you might have in a better written book. Also, I ended up writing down several questions I had about where the plot was going and how it ended up, that, with a more skilled author, I would not have had.  These are the kinds of capabilities you learn with experience, not to leave holes and not to allow your readers to start going something on the level of "I thought you said...or...How can that be because two chapter ago you said..."  

Of course, I'm quibbling here on a very high level, because this is really an extraordinary book.  

When it comes to the upsides, I have to say this book has some of the most amazing fight scenes ever, to the point where I felt as though they were being choreographed by a master choreographer.  Two thirds of the way through the book, there is a scene where Riley needs to make it through a door which is protected by several police officers in order to save the Station.  I don't want to give away any spoilers, but what I will say is that this scene is one of the most masterfully written scenes I've ever had the pleasure to read in a Sci Fi/Fantasy book.  

I give Rob Boffard credit for his fresh approach to these kinds of scenes and his capacity to maneuver his characters through very complicated moves almost effortlessly, or so it appears.  It's that genius Mr. Boffard has in creating these breathtaking action scenes that makes you as the reader feel, "Oh my God, I just have to find out what is going to happen next!"  There's knives, there's guns, there is extreme heat, there is extreme cold, there are people all over the ship running amok, our major characters are getting injured and pushed to the point of death--it's just one thing after another!  In other words, it's just one heck of a darned good read and who cares about any minor flaws anyway!  

So I don't have much more to say here except after "Tracer" there are two more additional delightful sequels which I look forward to reading since I purchased the omnibus book including them in a single package.  So in due time, I will be reading them as well, i.e. "Zero-G" and "Impact."  

Just for a few final details regarding this omnibus book, it has a very intriguing picture of the Space Station rotating in orbit around the dead planet Earth with the sun creeping up the horizon.  I would say this dazzling art played a major role in catching my attention so I ended up purchasing the book.  This cover art was produced by Das Illustrat Munchen.  

Rob Boffard is represented by Literary Agent and Co-Owner Ed Wilson of Johnson & Alcock in London, England.  Apparently, Ed Wilson is the kind of agent who prefers to represent authors who will have a long term appeal and won't fizzle out with the most recent trends.  He is currently working hard at building his Sci-Fi list, and from what I hear, he is also open to thrillers, teen and YA.  My impression of him is that he is a loyal agent who really stands by his clients, as well as an intelligent and imaginative reader.  

My guess is that, as a writer, Rob Boffard is a craftsman and that we will continue to see him produce many more wonderful books in the future.  Luckily, he appears to have a literary agent who can partner with him in getting that task done.