Sasha Sings the Laundry on the Line (Dougherty)

Dougherty is rapidly becoming one of my favorite poets. In addition to the music of his words (apparently, he’s great in person), his images are so evocative that I found myself imagining that I was inhabiting the world he describes. It’s probably obvious, but is still worth saying that these are the images of everyday people or things. That’s not to say there aren’t so-called higher callings here, like love, only that they are grounded in the details of ordinary people, however wounded or broken.

“Arias” –


Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud and the Last Trial of Harper Lee (Cep)

I admit it. For all of the flaws that I now recognize in her book – I still resist making that plural – I remain obsessed with Harper Lee. I recently saw the play in New York. Though I missed the opportunity to see Ms. Cep when she came to Cleveland, I am glad it prompted me to read her book.

I love the structure of the book. In some sense, the first half is a nod at doing what Lee, as far as we can tell, never managed to finish – a non-fiction novel covering many of the same topics as both To Kill a Mockingbird and In Cold Blood. The second brings in Lee and her research in preparation for writing and publishing her second book. As brutal and difficult as the first part is, the second part is often quite sad. The obstacles that got in her way, some familial and some self-inflicted are heartbreaking. She apparently drank a lot. Whether that was in response to the pressures she felt after the instant success of her book and the movie version or the tensions brought on by her dual life (Alabama, New York; Nelle, Harper; private, public), well, it does not matter and, to her credit, Cep avoids the psychoanalysis so many biographers undertake.

On the one hand, I hope, as is constantly rumored with Salinger, that more, including possibly the book she researched, will come out, though I am skeptical about the integrity of her estate, given the way Go Set a Watchman and a few other things have been handled since she became seriously ill and subsequently died. Apparently, there are only a few fictionalized pages. Given her often understated contributions to in Cold Blood, I suspect it would have been great. And it also would put to rest the notion that she was a one-hit wonder.

On the other hand, if To Kill a Mockingbird is your one hit, that’s a pretty impressive contribution to the world.

I’ve read a few interview responses about why Cep chose the title, Furious Hours. Nevertheless, it doesn’t seem right to me. The point with Lee and, indeed with the case that she was researching, is that everything took a long time.

They Who Do Not Grieve (Figiel)

I admit that this is the first book I’ve ever read that is set in Samoa, a place I know little about. There are plenty of verbal pyrotechnics here to keep this interesting, and it reminded me of a kind of shadow of Song of Solomon in the way that deals with three generations of strong women who do not live their lives according to conventions. When Figiel gets more modern, for example with the artist character, she gets a little too obvious. Otherwise, to the extent that I understood this, I was engaged by the way these women navigated their survival and the imagery of the tattoos.The book is explicit, in terms of language, sex, and, to my mind, violence. Is it appropriate for high school? I don’t think so.

The Children of Men (James)

I am seeking a dystopian story, one to teach alongside 1984, that may be more accessible for readers who struggle. This one clearly isn’t going to be able to be slotted into that role. The prose is dense, which is not to say hard, just that each paragraph contains a lot to wade through. And there’s definitely more summary than scene which doesn’t help its case.

Nevertheless, because I’m me, and I almost always finish books, I got into this one and welcomed its surprises, even it’s somewhat open-ended resolution. James – and this is likely due to her experience writing mysteries (I haven’t read any) – clearly knows how to get a plot moving. And the dialogue is honest and believable here, not didactic as it is in other novels of this genre. This one, with its undercurrent of a kind of messy religiosity, might be fun to teach one day. It’s just not right for the role I wanted it to have.

Next – Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother. Unless you have a better suggestion. . .

duende (Smith)

Someone, and I can’t find it right now, once said something about poetry is like a rattlesnake, very smooth, even beautiful, but there’s that bite at the end. I am sure they said it better. Anyway, I was reminded of that reading Smith’s collection. She lulls you into a poem and then there’s a line or phrase or even stanza that stings you. She’s playing at the borders here – present and past, life and death – and, I suspect, with form as well, but I’m not confident enough in my technical knowledge to say more. There’s so much wisdom here, often in the form of questions, ones that just make you pause.

Man, it’s hard to write about poetry. Here’s a favorite —

A Thousand Pieces of Gold: Growing Up Through China’s Proverbs (Yen Mah)

The structure here is intriguing. Each chapter would contain some memoir and some history and there would be a proverb that would unite the two. The first obstacle was the lack of momentum. Each chapter meant starting over since Yen Mah did not, as far as I could tell, arrange them in any kind of order, either according to her life or (and I’m less confident here) to Chinese history.

Then the linking proverbs started to seem like a stretch. And I, to borrow a British phrase, completely lost the plot when it came to the Chinese history sections. There were so many new names, places, battles that I pretty much stopped trying to track these sections. I didn’t understand them as history or really their purpose in the book.

Along the way, Yen Mah refers (many, many times) to her earlier book, Falling Leaves, and the way it caused trouble for her in her family. She makes it sound more interesting than this one. Then again, that’s a pretty low bar.

A Very Large Expanse of Sea (Mafi)

Despite being perhaps a bit too heavy on the romantic part, I thought this was an excellent book. By focusing on just a few characters, Mafi has time to develop them well and make them dynamic, flawed and believable people. Both of the main characters can, on the surface, comes off as cliches, but that’s part of the point. What does the reader expect of them? Because she’s more distant from me, much of what I learn about Shirin is a surprise. But even Ocean, yes that’s his name, has some surprises for me. And despite the emphasis on the romance, Mafi finds a way to wrap up the book in a very credible way. It’s clear at the end that she’s set it up all along.

I was puzzled a few times about how Mafi was writing the book, but I think now that it’s over, that I’ve figured it out.

People, and not just high school students, change, sometimes for good reasons; other times, the reasons, especially in a high school are more fickle. Mafi also had some unexpected twists on what could have been stock characters. The teacher who tries to be cool, but just isn’t. The overprotective older brother who genuinely loves his sister. And, well, the breakdancing. In the future, if not already, teachers who use this book might have to show YouTube clips, but that’s okay.