Wednesday, October 27, 2021

School blues - Daniel Pennac

Maybe not everyone knows that Mr. Pennacchioni, AKA Daniel Pennac, the world renowned French novelist, is also a school teacher.
In this book Pennac writes about his days as a school dunce. How frustrated this made him (and how upset his well educated parents were about it), how he finally managed to find motivation, become an educator himself and even achieve success as a writer. Four teachers actually “saved” him. One of them by asking him to write a novel, secretly, a chapter at a time, for the whole duration of the school year.
This is a book about students with difficulties, demotivated teachers and dedicated ones, teaching attitude and methodologies. It also deals with what social factors can make schooling a failure and how that list of factors has changed over time. To make his points Pennac skillfully alternate autobiographical stories and more or less fictional dialogs.
What you are about to read is an essay on pedagogy, written like a novel, by an ex school underachiever who pursued a career in teaching and became a famous writer.

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

A man (Un uomo) - Oriana Fallaci

At the time of publishing this book was categorized as a novel. Well, it’s not: it is the real story of Aleksandros (Alekos) Panagulis, the Greek poet, revolutionary and politician who opposed the military junta that ruled the Hellenic country from 1967 to 1974. Oriana Fallaci - the famous Italian journalist and writer who was in a relationship with Panagulis since he was released from jail until his death in a controversial car accident - tells the story of a man who deserted from the military in the aftermath of the coup, refused to live abroad as an exile like most of the other opponents did, staged and carried out a failed assassination attempt on the junta leader, was captured and endured harsh psychological and physical tortures without ever bending to his interrogators’ requests, defended himself in court, was condemned to death and - after the sentence was revoked due to international pressure on the junta - was finally jailed in a solitary cell for five years, until his liberation as a result of a national amnesty. The book also recounts the author’s romantic relationship with Panagulis and tries to sketch a portrait of the protagonist through his ideals, talents, idiosyncrasies, controversies, strengths and weaknesses. A man who thought that the end of the dictatorship didn’t necessarily mean the end of the regime, who tried to prove that the new ruling clique was just a civil counterpart of the military one. He did this all by himself, without the support of any of the parties or organisations involved in the transition, and for this - the author claims - he was finally assassinated.
If you don’t know much about that important piece of European history this book is definitely a good place to start.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

The uninhabitable earth - David Wallace-Wells

This book about climate change - global warming in particular - is a tough one. Both because it’s not an easy read - especially the first part, so full of technical details, facts and figures, many, many of them - and because it’s a very alarmist text: the worst case scenario that it depicts is a grim one. And even if you take into account the base case scenario, well, it’s not a merry one either. Basically, we might be doomed. Damage has already been done, and that will hardly be fixed in the near future. Even worse, more damage is being added by the year, at a considerable speed. We might just have a few decades to reverse the tide before it’s too late, and judging by the global level of commitment and coordination, that could turn out to be an extremely long shot.
The author lists the elements of chaos unleashed by anthropogenic global warming: heath death, hunger, drowning, wildfire, disasters no longer natural, freshwater drain, dying oceans, unbreathable air, plagues of warming, economic collapse, climate conflict. We’re not talking about some tipping point reaching which disaster will occur: it’s an ongoing process, already underway, that will entail a lot of painful readjusting. Each one of the listed elements gets worse with increasing temperatures. Just consider the “disasters no longer natural” item, for instance: plot the trend of the number and severity of recent tropical storms and wildfires and see if you smell anything funny. Follow that trend and try to figure out what it leads to. Then apply the same thought experiment to all the other elements in the list. Scary, right?
As I said, this is not an easy read, but it might be worth the effort: you might be skeptical, but what if this is accurate? Change happens quickly. Time is crucial.

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

The man who mistook his wife for a hat - Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks is not just a physician who writes book: he’s a literary talent who happens to be a brilliant neuroscientist. The set of clinical cases he deals with are told with academic accuracy and a style worth of a talented short story author. Patient after patient, syndrome after syndrome, the reader learns how evolved and sophisticated the human nervous system is, and how catastrophic a minor glitch in one of its numerous components can be. We also learn how (fortunately) rare those glitches are, and how science can help cure the corresponding illnesses.
Some of Sacks’ patients also exhibit special talents in specific fields, which help them compensate for their inabilities. Particularly interesting, in this regard, is the section on the developmentally disabled. These individuals, though sometimes affected by serious lacks of motor and intellectual abilities, are gifted with spectacular numerical, musical, mnemonic, poetic, theatrical or narrative talents. Skills that can be noticed only when looking for potential rather than defects. This is an important lesson that Oliver Sacks learned through his professional work and prolific collaboration with the most prominent experts in the field, such as the great Russian scientist Alexander Luria. I feel it is also the most important lesson we can learn reading his books.