Prague Winter, by Madeleine Albright

Full Title: Prague Winter, A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948

We found Prague Winter engaging on many levels. Albright tells personal and family stories that play out across the mid-20th Century history of Central Europe, with a focus on the ethical choices that confronted her family, their friends, professional colleagues, and national leaders during this tumultuous time. Prague Winter is not a conventional history book, but it explains a large sweep of history in these personal contexts.

The family story is an absorbing one of her parents’ slow motion courtship in the Czechoslovakia of the 1930s, her father’s development as a professional diplomat, and the family’s relocation to Belgrade, London, back to Prague, and eventually to the United States. (Albright’s own professional story as a diplomat and Secretary of State is told in other books).

The European history is anchored in the familiar elements of World War 2 and the Communist takeover of Central/Eastern Europe. But Albright’s telling of her family’s story gives us a highly personal and accessible view of the historic events. She explains the emergence of Czechoslovakia, its sacrifice on the altar of world peace at Munich, its suffering during World War 2, its brief democratic resurgence, and the bungling that took it into the Communist fold in 1948. 

Albright lets us see the personalities of Masaryk, Beneš, and other key players in the story, and many people who weren’t in positions to drive history but nevertheless had to navigate it. This is Albright’s real theme in this book: the painful personal and ethical choices people had to make throughout this period. What did Nazi occupation look like from Prague? From the concentration camp? And from exile in London? How did people weigh international peace with national integrity? How do people take political positions that risk the welfare of family and friends? These are questions with no easy answers, and often with no good answers. But they provide great discussion, and that’s what we enjoyed so much about this book.

— Bill Smith

The Water is Wide, by Pat Conroy

Pat Conroy introduces himself in this book, published in 1972, before writing several much acclaimed and widely read novels such as The Great Santini, The Lords of Discipline, and South of BroadThe Water is Wide is a reflection on a year of teaching middle school (1969-1970) on the culturally isolated Yamacraw (Daufuskie) Island, South Carolina. It’s a young man’s coming of age, reckoning with his military brat upbringing and the transformation of his traditional Southern White outlook to a mindset that was enormously progressive for that time and place. 

As a young teacher, Conroy was challenged by the island’s culture and economics. His African-American students were accustomed to regular use of violence with each other, their families, and their animals. His colleague, Mrs. Brown, accepted the traditional White expectations of low ability and poor outcomes for these kids and the prescription of rote learning and discipline by the belt. Although Conroy was supposed to be teaching middle school, most of his students were woefully deficient in even the most rudimentary pieces of elementary education – they couldn’t write their names, say the alphabet, or find the location of their island on a map. The islanders led a withdrawn lifestyle after the failure of the island’s oyster beds, but were reluctant to let their kids go to the mainland for their first experience of Halloween, one of Conroy’s early projects. The school administration treated the island as a distant distraction from the needs of the mainland towns. Conroy met these situations with the righteousness of a committed young man, tested various strategies of engagement, avoidance and confrontation, and predictably met with varying degrees of success.

Conroy brings a remarkable clarity and maturity to a fairly fresh set of experiences, and he does it with humor and palpable images of the island and its people. He has a clear eye for his own growth as he gained respect for his students’ ability to deal with their reality and battled the administration for resources and flexibility. He also has a handle on his own rigidity that inevitably ended his teaching career; he picked an unwinnable dispute over gasoline and maintenance costs of the boat he used to commute to the island, but he would never have been successful with a school bureaucracy that was managing system-wide integration.

He earned my respect for his effort and creativity to give his students an awareness of life off the island, where many of them would eventually have to live. His experience came several years before broad-based programs like Teach for America but it points to some of the ways such programs may be able to support teaching in disadvantaged communities. Conroy ends the memoir with a hopeful forecast of racial acceptance in South Carolina that has only been partly realized by recent history but his story echoes with hope and possibility.

— Bill Smith

The Map that Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology, by Simon Winchester

Few branches of science are so closely attributable to a single originator as geology.  Simon Winchester gives us a brisk walk through the life of William Smith as his observations of the English countryside grew from surveying for coal mining, canal building and agricultural drainage to a full mapping of its surface and subsurface geologic structures. 

The life story includes Smith’s humble beginnings and emphasizes how his lack of social standing, despite his competence in his surveying work, hindered acceptance of his scientific work.  He tried to offset this status by living above his means, with consequent times of financial failure and debtors prison. 

Recognition of his scientific work follows a similar arc.  Smith came to a sweeping understanding of the sedimentary layers of coal, limestone, chalk, and other soil and mineral formations that he observed in regular bands across England.  This understanding was enhanced by the correlation of fossils associated with different layers.  The consistent tilt of these layers also allowed him to predict their appearance underground.  This understanding was of obvious commercial value to the mining industry at that time and since to petroleum and other industries.  Smith finally compiled his observations in his “Map of the Strata of England and Wales,” which sold well, though Smith’s lack of social standing meant that the economic value of his work went largely to others.  Intellectual recognition of the originality of Smith’s work, and its importance to understanding the formation of the earth and the evolution of life, was contested for years.  Eventual recognition of Smith’s creative role in forming the science of geology came later in his life, giving a happy ending to the story.

Winchester’s telling of the story is quintessentially British in style.  He wields arcane vocabulary and scientific terminology in intricate sentences that are at times charming and at sometimes just dense.  Winchester makes scientific concepts understandable to readers willing to do some work, or skippable without losing the flow.  There are a number of helpful illustrations, but a shortage of maps of Smith’s whirlwind travels throughout England that would orient readers who don’t know that geography.  This book opened a new area of knowledge for most of our group, though some of us had touched bits of its subject matter.  It provided wonderful discussion material for our group.  We explored imprisonment for debt, how Smith avoided conflict with literal interpretations of biblical creation stories, the shift of thought during the unfolding of the age of reason and the industrial revolution and the individual genius of finding unique significance from observations seen by millions. 

— Bill Smith