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Three Book Reviews

I receive at least a dozen books a year from publishers who want me either to adopt their titles in the classroom or fan their authors with favor in print. Most are duds—cheaply printed how-to books on writing, hagiographic biographies of writers, memoirs about the writing life, and so forth—which I invariably pass on to students or thrift stores.


Now and then, thank goodness, keepers do come in.


Joseph McBride’s Two Cheers for Hollywood (Hightower Press, 2017) is one of these. McBride may not have a household name, but he is one of the lions of American film criticism, the author of numerous articles and books about the movies, including the best biography of the best director of westerns, Searching for John Ford. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin in the late 1960s, McBride found his way to Los Angeles, where he worked for a stretch at Daily Variety, writing features and movie reviews and interviewing the likes of Alfred Hitchcock and John Huston. He became an actor, too, appearing in several movies produced by Roger Corman, among them Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, which he co-wrote, and Orson Welles’s unfinished The Other Side of the Wind.


Two Cheers for Hollywood features selections from the entirety of McBride’s career as a film writer and historian, providing interviews with such eminent directors as Billy Wilder, Frank Capra, and George Cukor and profiles of screenwriters Michael Wilson and Frank Nugent. An advocate for the lingering charm of old Hollywood, McBride worries that current political, social, and economic conditions have hobbled the movie industry “to the point of irrelevancy,” as evidenced by the stream of empty-headed-shock-and-awe-popcorn flicks that currently dominate the box office. Fortunately, the bulk of this anthology directs our attention to the masterpieces (rather than the embarrassments) of American cinema, e. g. Ford’s The Searchers, Hal Ashby’s Bound for Glory, Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, and the like.


Thoughts on loss and death also occupy Tom C. Hunley’s Here Lies Tom C. Hunley (Stephen F. Austin State UP, 2018). Hunley, a living, going creative writing professor at Western Kentucky University, has concocted a series of vibrant fantasies in verse about the causes and conditions of his own passing and the appreciation for life and its rich pageants that a healthy awareness of one’s mortality can yield. The beauty of this collection is the poet’s tendency to craft startling images snatched from the corners of here-and-now America, defamiliarizing the familiar for us over and over. One of his deaths, for instance, occurs in a library with “the squeaks of a book cart / in his ears, and in his eyes / the luminous librarians, that perfect / reading light reflecting off their lenses.” Amidst these keen renderings of the mundane, Hunley often drops in aphoristic observations, mini-manifestoes, if you will, about married life, career, punk rock, and writing. My favorite: “poetry sings the song of the human / heart and literary fiction tells its story.”


Pedagogy—the theories that guide instructors in the classroom—may strike some as one of the least interesting topics imaginable for a book. Yet a new collection of essays, Teaching Students with Learning Disabilities at Beacon College (Peter Lang Publishing, 2017), reminds us in often vivid fashion that effective teachers foster essential human and social development, leading to self-actualization and, in turn, a better world. Editor William Nesbitt has invited his colleagues at Beacon College—a private institution in central Florida for students with learning disabilities—to elaborate upon strategies they’ve developed that enable them to work around, and work with, students’ cognitive challenges.


An agreeable earnestness characterizes these essays as they move between hard, empirically driven findings and poignant autobiographical examinations of teacher-student interactions.

Terri G. Ross’s “Learning with Hearts and Hands and Voices” exemplifies this contrapuntal dynamic. An anthropologist, Ross sought to help her students better understand Native American culture by constructing a classroom setting that resembled as much as possible the “Southwestern environment,” a task that included building a Pueblo shrine called a kiva and bringing onto campus ficus trees indigenous to the desert. Ross also organized several activities through which, she hoped, her students would “gain an understanding and an appreciation for others and themselves,” in particular “making and using atlatls, cordage making, creating pottery and fetishes, storytelling, and weaving.” These “unique learning” tactics, she reports, fostered “both cultural and self-awareness.”  


Too often, awareness of the sort Ross’s teaching engenders is undervalued in higher education, even shunned. And knowing that a college like Beacon exists, with employees like Ross who’ve retained their optimism about their work and the manner in which it can enhance students’ understanding of this sad and beautiful world, will provide many of us with a refreshed sense of hope.

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