Down These Mean Streets (Thomas)

This Puerto Rican coming-of-age memoir sparks because of its voice and its (sometimes brutal) honesty. Even if elements are familiar – conflicts with his father, life on the streets, life in jail, exploring religion, etc. – Thomas’ gift for storytelling makes this the ideal book to hand to certain young people at the time in their lives when they may need some guidance you can’t provide. I think some of that brutal honesty I mentioned makes it unusable in the classroom, at least not in its entirety. Thomas, born of mixed parentage, is at his best when he articulates his internal conflicts about what it means to be Puerto Rican in a country that only sees things in terms of black and white. If some of the dialogue comes across as too didactic, I think that’s forgivable. Here, as elsewhere, the power of the narrative lies in the specifics. In this light, I also found Thomas’ account of struggling with his own temper (especially while in jail) quite compelling as he battled his need for a reputation and his desire to be free.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (Tokarczuk)

Well, she won the Nobel Prize, so I figured I ought to try something of hers, and this one got my attention at the beginning. Maybe I didn’t focus on it properly, but it seemed to drift after that. Perhaps you would have figured out things sooner, but I didn’t. I sort of wondered about the lack of movement concerning the dead bodies that were accumulating in the book, but I thought maybe that was part of the book’s quirkiness. We have a small group of people, complete with nicknames (bestowed by the narrator) like Oddball, living way, way off the beaten path between Poland and the Czech Republic, so anything seemed possible. In any event, the last quarter of the book pulls things together effectively, convincingly and meaningfully. I think I would try another Tokarczuk book now that I know they are all “marvelously weird” like this one. I appreciate it more now than I did when I was reading it, and I think having some idea of the way she works would make it easier to navigate the situation the next time I enter one of her worlds.

Six Great Sherlock Holmes Stories (Doyle)

I realized, as I sat watching Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock series yet again, that, as fascinated as I am with screen versions of his character, I have never read any of the stories. I happened to have this nifty Dover collection, so I thought I’d give it a try. After reading these mildly diverting stories, I have no idea why the character keeps being re-invented for the page and screen. The stories are largely exposition and contain little action or suspense. I think I mostly found them entertaining insofar as I could compare them to how they appeared on screen. Back to the TV show!

An American Sunrise (Harjo)

I don’t think I read this right. I tend to read poetry slowly, a few poems at a time. In doing so with this book, though, I think I lost the narrative momentum that I think I started to recognize near the end of the book. There are so many “I think” statements in that opening line because I’m not sure I understood much here, that perhaps the content was too far outside of my background knowledge/cultural experience for me to grasp much of what Harjo was offering. I can say a few surface level things, like how the collection was about the Trail of Tears and how it turns the Trail of Tears from something that maybe gets a page in an American History textbook (though you should try teaching this part of history in Nashville, home of Andrew Jackson) to something that was about human beings and something that still resonates today.

“By the Way” and “Tobacco Origin Story” (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/143932/tobacco-origin-story-because-tobacco-was-a-gift-intended-to-walk-alongside-us-to-the-stars) were my two favories, and I loved Harjo’s prose historical interludes. She says so much with so little, even in prose.

So I read it and will read it again, more as a narrative than as individual poems the next time. I might even try a few poems out in class should I find myself in this period of history again.

The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop: How to Decolonize the Creative Classroom (Chavez)

I have to admit that I never really gave that much thought to Writing Workshop. I just accepted what Nancie Atwell had to tell me and did my best to incorporate it. Felicia – that’s how she signs her closing letter to the reader – explains why; it was made for me, the white male me. I was comfortable with the rules (though gradually learned to talk less) and passed them on to too many generations of students.

This book has me reconsidering, well, everything. Felicia’s passion for her work pops off the page. The book made me uncomfortable on a regular basis. I found myself sputtering, “But. . . but. . .” In the end, though, I was convinced. It means doing more to share power. It means significantly less gatekeeping. It means continuing to re-shape assessment. It means working on becoming comfortable with daily check-ins. It means a lot more talking with my students (and a lot less writing on papers).

But if it’s better for students, especially students of color, and she’s convinced me that it is, then I need to try. And so do you.

https://www.haymarketbooks.org/books/1552-the-anti-racist-writing-workshop

A Moveable Feast (Hemingway)

I’ve learned to appreciate Hemingway’s writing style. I first tried his work in high school after I met students in Russia who knew more about his work than I did. I taught The Old Man and the Sea once, and that did not go well. But every so often, I pick up a novel or a few short stories. I decided to read this one because of Ken Burns’ upcoming documentary about Hemingway (https://www.pbs.org/kenburns/hemingway/). I liked it. The sketches of life in Paris are, not surprisingly, spare, lean and powerful. The chapters that have him spending time with F. Scott Fitzgerald are sad, but, as with all things personal about Hemingway, who knows what’s really true? (This is part of why I’m worried about the upcoming film. I love literature, not psychology.) It was worth it to get the restored edition of this memoir. You get some sketches that he omitted, including two personal ones that fall flat because they consist of him trying to use the second person to excuse his behavior towards his first wife, Hadley. You also get many drafts of his introduction and there is much to be learned about his writing process from looking at them carefully.

What it Means When a Man Falls from the Sky (Arimah)

What a fresh, original, surprising collection of short stories. 12 in all, and maybe just 1 fell flat. Imaginative, sometimes with their feet planted firmly in magical realism, these stories are fast-paced and thoughtful. There’s an undercurrent about emotions here – how they can be located, isolated, even removed – that I’d love to see her explore further in a more deliberate way. She is a bit too reliant on endings she means to have open out here, and so they become more of a gimmick, a crutch even, than a thought-provoking technique.

What’s next, I wonder? Is there a novel coming? Whatever it is, I’ll be there for it.

the biography of broken things (Dougherty)

The energy that vibrates from Dougherty’s poetry is relentless. One day, I hope to hear him read some live. For now, as he reminds us, we must always listen with something beyond our ears, and I am grateful to have his poetry serve as my ears, eyes, hell, all of my senses. In poems like “to count the death of dreams,” “they are gathering hay,” “her face it is turned away,” “goodnight” and “halls,” Dougherty summons us to praise the suffering, praise the poor, the hungry, the alone, by giving us glimpses of the unspectacular, of the life and how it is lived when nobody is watching or, as he puts it, the intimate life achieved in small moments. He enables the reader to recognize the shape of sorrow.

Yet Dougherty is not just searching for sorrow. He finds so much to praise (see “a bed of my hands”) and celebrate. Best to let him explain:

the persistence of living, a persistence of broken things, a sort of almost silenced song meaning for some things there is a music even beyond music, beyond even musing, for some things sing without saying so, as when the city bus heaves, and my tiny son laughs and throws his hands in the air, as when he danced in a circle the first day it snowed.

The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap (Baradaran)

It does not take much for a book about banking to find its way above my head, and this one is no exception. As best as I could understand it, Baradaran argues that there’s been too much faith put into the limited good that black banks can do. These limitations, she argues, are not understood by many, including Presidents and Civil Rights leaders. These limits are immovable, as I understood things, given the current level of (economic) segregation. There’s also been an intertwined battle about what is meant, in principle and practice, by the phrase “black capitalism.”

I think it’s fair to say that she is not against the notion of black banks, but that they can’t be viewed as anchors for some kind of separate economy that may last for a while, but will never survive, much less flourish.

Best to let her speak for herself –

https://www.marketwatch.com/story/mehrsa-baradaran-author-of-the-color-of-money-on-the-moment-she-realized-banking-was-all-smoke-and-mirrors-11604309666

Circe (Miller)

I presumed Miller’s second novel would focus on how Circe’s story intersected with Odysseus’, so when Odysseus did not appear on stage for the first 200 pages or so, I was a little bit surprised. Still, the novel was absorbing up until that point. Miller’s details are so precise and her tone is so consistently pitch perfect that you never question that you are in world that both Gods and mortals inhabit. Still, when I closed the book each time, something was gnawing at me. The plot seemed episodic. I didn’t know where Miller was headed, and I hadn’t liked where The Song of Achilles had ended up.

Once Odysseus enters, the story moves from absorbing to absolutely compelling. And that’s not because Odysseus dominates. Circe commands this book the same way she commands her magic, her lions, her wolves, and her island.

It is difficult to write about the second half of the novel without spoilers, but any apprehensions I had about Miller’s ability to negotiate her endings have absolutely disappeared. This ending is sustained, complex and richly earned. All of those set pieces from the first half of the novel turn out to be essential parts of a layered and a incredibly human story. Tears came several times near the end, but I didn’t want to pause for them because I was racing to turn the pages to see how this particular bard’s story would end.

Absolutely majestic.