Zora and Me (Bond & Simon)

This book, according to the book jacket, is “the only project ever to be endorsed by the Zora Neale Hurston Trust that was not written by Hurston herself.” The book is not only a tribute to Hurston’s Eatonville but to Hurston’s writing. At one point, the authors write, “[D]arkness had written Eatonville in a strange, frightening language, and I couldn’t read it” (114); pure Hurston. A few of Hurston’s characters show up here as well – Joe Clarke, for example. The spirit of the story is Hurston’s as well – part narrative, part anthropology, part commentary.

It’s clearly written for younger children. How young is the question? The “n” word shows up at least 5 times – always as a noun, always used by an AA character. (Do those distinctions matter?) How would a teacher handle this word? How would a teacher explain why a place like Eatonville was created? The issue of passing? There are no lynchings in the book, but the fear is present throughout. There are two dead bodies. There are no explicit descriptions of them, but we do learn that one is headless.

Speaking of Mr. Pendir and his woodworking abilities, Joe Clarke explains to Zora and the narrator, Carrie, that, “[h]is art scared off his fear” (162). This is one of the best and most succinct descriptions of what art is for that I’ve ever read.


Morning Girl (Dorris)

I have always insisted that an author’s biography should have little influence on our understanding of the work at hand, that we should, as Billy Collins suggests, “wave at the author’s name on the shore.” So all I know about Michael Dorris is that he wrote (and I enjoyed) A Yellow Raft in Blue Water. And that he was married to Louise Erdrich and that he, I believe, committed suicide. There’s my wave. Does the connection with Erdrich give him some kind of credibility to tell the story of a 1492 Bahamian island?

The story is simple enough. More an exercise in character (Morning Girl and Star Boy, who narrate alternate chapters) than anything else. A plot summary of this admittedly short book (74 pages) would take, at most, a sentence.

Then there’s the ending. I won’t spoil it, but it made me re-think everything I read and thought I knew.

It’s listed as being appropriate for ages 9 and up. Would it work, for example, in 4th grade? A mother loses a baby in childbirth. How does one help students think about that? There’s not a lot of action. The students would read it. Would they be engaged? Would they think of it as a ‘normal’ story for 72 pages – a story of a brother and sister who don’t always get along but stand by each other when circumstances require? I think you could pretty much ask students to read the first 72 pages and then stop and just need 1-2 days of discussion for those. Then the last 2 pages would take any number of days to unpack.

The writing here is spare and effective. The image of Star Boy waiting out a storm under a tree that is special to the community is haunting and here, as with elsewhere, Dorris does less with more. I think it is because there is so much left out here and throughout that the ending has such an impact.

Simon Bloom: The Gravity Keeper (Reisman)

I enjoyed it. Like a good children’s movie, there are plenty of moments for adult readers as well. I wonder about all of the science. Is it too much for young children? How many of us understand Newton’s 3 Laws of Physics? Einstein’s Theory of Relativity? Do readers or listeners need to understand these things in order to follow the story? It can help, but I don’t think it gets in the way of understanding or enjoyment. Would it turn a reader / listener off? I don’t think so. Then there’s the mix of real science and fantasy science. Does that give the story more credibility? Or does it confuse young readers / listeners much the same way historical fiction can?

The writing is fine, if unspectacular. The characters are the usual suspects – outsiders who bond together, distracted parents, etc..

I appreciate that there’s a legitimate set-up for a sequel. This particular story ends, but it sets up a problem for a new story, not that I’m going to read it.

Zone One (Whitehead)

I have to admit I was skeptical. Though I am a fan of Whitehead’s (Sag Harbor, The Intuitionist), I am no fan of zombie stories. And, I admit, I wondered why he would bother with such a topic. Did I pigeonhole him?

I don’t think I’m over-intellectualizing this reading experience when I say that I think Whitehead has more on his mind here than honoring his childhood fascination with zombie movies. I think this book is a love song for what he perceives to be a lost New York, particularly Manhattan – a New York that has lost its way since the terrorist attacks in September of 2001. About halfway through the book, Zone One started to sound an awful lot like the next step after Ground Zero. There is Whitehead’s usual dose of sharply observed satire and his attention to the physicality of stuff, especially architecture. (Between this and The Intuitionist, I started to wonder whether there are architecture classes in Whitehead’s background.) Whitehead’s observations provided another surprise for me. This book is funny. It’s hard to provide an example out of context – this is not a book of one-liners after all and Whitehead rarely goes for the easy laugh (though the trite Buffalo and Cleveland joke surprised me). After a two-paragraph description of a dream that Spitz has about taking a yoga class with zombies, getting changed in the locker room next to a zombie, ordering a deluxe combo juice and taking the subway train home with the commuting dead, Whitehead notes in a one-sentence paragraph that “[t]he only unsettling thing about the dream was that he’d never taken a yoga class in his life” (109).

But I think Whitehead’s mind is on the personal and political barricades (a motif throughout the book) that we’ve erected since those attacks, and what they’ve done to those of us inside of the barricades – why “we never see other people.  . . only the monsters we make of them” (214). “Maybe,” I would argue Whitehead himself hopes, “we can unsee the monsters again” (239). He wants those barricades broken down because “you have to learn how to swim sometime” (259).

I saw that this title appeared on someone’s list of most overlooked books of 2011. I would have to agree. And I think we all ought to wonder why.

Gold Boy, Emerald Girl (Li)

I loved Li’s novel, The Vagrants. The writing remains remarkable here. There are more than a few lines that just beg to be underlined because of the sheer beauty of them. The first story (or novella? When does a story become a novella? This ‘story’ is 78 pages), “Kindness,” is my favorite. There are a few strands that run throughout that make sense to me, like the clash of the generations, old China vs. new America, non-traditional families and the power of stories. The pattern of older men with younger women is harder to understand. Perhaps it’s because Li first came to my attention as one of The New Yorker’s top 20 fiction writers under 40, but the emphasis here on older characters surprised me. Li’s insights about all things, love, aging, parents and children, are as nuanced as they are wise.

Race, Place, and Environmental Justice after Hurricane Katrina (Bullard & Wright, ed.)

In his contribution to this collection, John R. Logan best sums up my impression of the post-Katrina recovery efforts. He writes that “what stands out is the failure to formulate a coherent policy” (249). And it’s not for a lack of ideas (and studies – cripes, stop spending money on studies and start spending it on the ground); there are plenty of them here. The best, I think, come from Earthea Nance in her essay, “Making the Case for Community-Based Laboratories: A New Strategy for Environmental Justice.” Her key point, finding ways to give the public direct access to science, is particularly compelling. Sheila J. Webb offers the best explanation for all of the delays: “These planning processes are constrained by efforts to include and involve the appropriate stakeholders in the face of blistering deadlines” (147). What’s clear from this book is that people need to know that their neighborhood is environmentally safe, they need a job, and they need a place to live. The way Katrina has been seized on as an opportunity to re-make public housing is disgraceful. Equally disgraceful is the conduct of the Bush administration (who conveniently and opportunistically rescinded the Davis-Bacon act) and the irony of it being concerned about historical corruption in New Orleans even as they awarded no-bid contracts to companies with close connections to the Republican Party, even when the companies had already failed them and often over-billed them for contracts they were ‘awarded’ in Iraq. The EPA and, to a lesser extent, various insurance companies also take a lot of heat in this collection and justifiably so.

The jargon can be overwhelming at times. The goal to ‘deconcentrate poverty’ – and the related claim that the hurricane did that by displacing so many poor people – is disturbing on so many levels. And the logic behind is completely obliterated in the afterword when Wright and Bullard (better writers than editors – more on this later) state simply that “the best way to break up concentrated poverty is not displacement but concentrated employment at a livable wage” (265).

The book also makes the point repeatedly that Katrina, its impact, and the second wave of its impact (not my lingo) is not historically isolated. Nance, not surprisingly, puts it best: “Following slavery, African-descended people in the region were forced (by law) to live in low-lying areas such as the Lower Ninth Ward, which put them at higher risk of flooding and water-related contamination. This represented another tacit transfer of environmental burdens onto specific population groups” (155).

There is a lot of useful information here. There is research, there are complaints, and there are also proposals. I wish Bullard and Wright had done more to put their contributors in dialogue with one another, in part to limit a lot of the annoying repetition, but mostly because I think more careful editing (i.e., having authors acknowledge and respond to the ideas of the other authors) would have sharpened the argument of the book as a whole.

People’s livelihoods and lives are at stake here. We need some coherency. And soon.

Matterhorn (Marlantes)

Ever since I stayed up all night to finish it and then write a letter to a friend about it, I’ve cherished Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. There are those who think it has flaws – that there very few apparently minor characters, that the women do not come off well. Still, I think as an investigation of the Vietnam War and its aftermath, it remains a structurally fantastic piece that has more to say about storytelling than many books that have tried much harder.

When I heard about Matterhorn and its popularity, I was intrigued. Could this book add something to the conversation? Be a kind of companion for the O’Brien? Replace it?

After 566 pages, I can say that the answer is definitively no. I mean, I have to trust Marlantes, as a vet, to get the battle scenes right. But he’s got more than that on his mind. The exploration of the racial politics in the novel (criticized as being absent from the O’Brien) rings completely false here. There are no insights or interesting moments – just cartoons.

After I was about halfway through, I started to wonder whether Mellas, the heroic soldier, was a kind of stand-in for the author. The white man who connects with the blacks, the fresh solider who learns the cynicism of the vet, the soldier who watches everyone else around him die and manages to survive, the foolish one who volunteered for this war.

There are some interesting moments in the first half – as Mellas tries to negotiate the small moments, the small tests he faces on his way to becoming a leader. Aside from an always noble but often inappropriate temper, he succeeds.

Skip this one; read the O’Brien again.