Night Flying Woman: An Ojibway Narrative (Broker)

I read this for the first time soon after I moved to Minnesota. Along with The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, it was recommended to me as a way to learn about Minnesota. I remember not being impressed with it. I thought the protagonist, a young girl, was too wise for her years and that the characters lacked any shades of grey.

This time I read it to consider whether to recommend it for classroom use (4th grade). The issues with the protagonist (Oona) did not stand out as much, but now that I know more about 4th grade readers, I don’t think there’s enough action in the story for them. Also, the characters are two-dimensional. The plot, such at is, is largely routine. The Ojibway people lead a wonderful life. The whites encroach, seem friendly or at least reasonable, at first. The Ojibway try to keep their distance and ultimately can’t. The protagonist’s mother wants some of the things that the whites have to offer and all accept the inevitability of the “change,” the need to adopt the ways of the whites. The fear persists that the “old ways” will be forgotten. In the end, Oona, now 80, tries to teach the newest generation about these old ways, and we are left with hope because these children want to learn them.

I don’t get why Louise Erdrich calls this, “One of [her] favorite books.” Do you?

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Fortunate Son (Mosley)

I knew from having read Devil in a Blue Dress that Mosley’s world is a man’s world, and that’s the case again here in Fortunate Son. The men, specifically the two brothers – Eric & Thomas –  are powerful, well-endowed, and irresistible. The women are wise and whorish. There’s not so much a plot here as just a series of seemingly events, and many lack credibility. Some characters are cardboard cutouts, such as the Vietnamese nanny turned housekeeper and a creepy business tycoon.

Mosley is coming to Minnesota, and I plan to go hear him. He’s considered a master of the trade. I did enjoy Devil in a Blue Dress. If you have any suggestions about a Mosley book that would get me back in the mood to hear him talk, let me know.

The Blessings of a Skinned Knee (Mogel)

She’s coming to talk at my school tomorrow, so I thought I’d read one of her books to get a sense of what she is going to talk about. The parenting advice is as useful as it is familiar – sometimes, as hard as it is, we have to let our children struggle and suffer. They have to learn how to do that as much as they have to learn how to read. It’s Mogel’s subtitle that is bugging me a bit – Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children. I was always aware of the presence of the Jewish strand of the argument, but I never found it necessary. It seems to be her niche, but if that’s all she’s leaning on, I wonder if she’s more unique than she is credible.

The writing itself is fine if unspectacular. It took me a while to get through this one, and I’m not planning to read her Blessings of a B-. I think as a writer, she’s another one of these successful article writers who gets so popular someone says, “Write a book!” And I read it.

Invisible Man (Ellison)

Prompted by a World Premiere production of an adaptation of Ellison’s novel at Court Theatre in Chicago (http://www.courttheatre.org/season/show/invisible_man/), I decided to read Ellison’s novel again. Forgive the brief digression here. My barber once said, when speaking of a museum, “The museum doesn’t change, but my kid does.” Well, the book hasn’t changed, but I certainly have as a reader and as a person. This is a stunning novel. I remembered many of the set pieces, like the eviction scene, but I’d lost a lot of the details over the time, and I’ve become better at seeing how a book is put together. The prologue itself – just 10 pages – is an absolute masterpiece. Ellison’s syntax is staggering, even if the plot sometimes isn’t. (Where does Clifton come from? Why does he start selling Sambo dolls? Is he a character or a symbol?) And, as in Native Son, a book that this one is clearly in conversation with, things go off the rails a bit at the end because of the inclination each author has for speechifying.

It was interesting to see how the theatre production (approved by the Ellison estate) dealt with not only the major parts of the plot, but also some of the details – the protagonist’s inability to leave Mary’s (that name can’t be a coincidence) bank behind, the frightening interaction with Sybil near the end – are both dropped in the stage version, but seem quite important here. Then again, the play already clocks in at three hours; something had to go.

I know there’s a posthumous novel and some stories and essays. Has anyone read any of those?

I’m generally not a fan of re-reading. There’s so much out there to encounter for the first time. Now I’ll put it aside again for a while. I suspect it will still stand up the next time I read it. I think, on this night of the State of the Union, that I’m not the only one who needs to reminded that we should “[l]et man keep his many parts and you’ll have no tyrant states” (435).

An amazing book and an important production. Experience them both if you can.

The Practice of the Wild (Snyder)

I was nervous about picking up my first Snyder book. One is supposed to like a legend. For a while, I don’t think I was tracking the book very well. There were pieces that interested me about places and spaces (including cities – Snyder acknowledges them as their own kind of wild) and the narratives of nature. I got that he saw a need for us to battle against the fierce appetite of industrial civilization. The essay, “Tawny Grammar,” was the first one that made sense to me. Then the essay “Good, Wild, Sacred” yielded this gem (101):

Sacred refers to that which helps take us (not only human beings) out of our little selves into the whole mountains-and-rivers mandala universe. Inspiration, exaltation, and insight do not end when one steps outside the doors of a church. The wilderness as a temple is only the beginning. One should not dwell in the specialness of the extraordinary experience to leave the political quagg* behind to enter a perpetual state of heightened insight. The best purpose of such studies and hikes is to be able to come back to the lowlands and see all the land about us, agricultural, suburban, urban, as part of the same territory–never totally ruined, never completely unnatural. It can be restored, and humans could live in considerable numbers on much of it. Great Brown Bear is walking with us, Salmon swimming upstream with us, as we stroll a city street.

As an avid walker, I also liked this from the essay, “Blue Mountains Constantly Walking” (105-6):

The Chinese spoke of the “four dignities” — Standing, Lying, Sitting, and Walking. They are “dignities” in that they are ways of being fully ourselves, at home in our bodies, in their fundamental modes. . .That’s the way to see the world: in our own bodies.

This essay also turns on its head the traditional connotations of homelessness in a very profound and provocative way.

Snyder’s point, most succinctly put, comes (I think) in the essay, “Survival and Sacrament.” He writes that “[o]ur immediate business, and our quarrel, is with ourselves.”

I agree.

 

 

* – I kind of enjoy not knowing what exactly ‘quagg’ means, but I definitely plan to use it in Scrabble.

Lockdown: Escape from Furnace (AG Smith)

Anything with a recommendation from James Patterson on the front should have made me nervous. That, together with a frightening picture on the front (person in gas mask with 4 syringes on his chest like a kind of ammunition) and the word “HELL” emblazoned on the back made me hide this book from my young children. This is another book that makes me wonder and worry about the direction some young adult fiction is taking. (Perhaps it’s just the titles I’m choosing?) I’m reading a lot of grim books lately. A salesman at The Bookcase confirmed my impression, though. She said that just by walking through the YA section at her store, you could see how dark the books had become. Granted, some of this is the vampire / zombie genre (and what does the popularity of that kind of book say about us? – thanks, Kris S., for that question), but Lockdown, like The Maze Runner, seems to be suggesting something about our children. Once again, children are separated from society. This time, it’s because they’ve committed a crime or have been, as in the case of our protagonist, framed for a crime. Because of what gets called ‘The Summer of Slaughter,’ a frightening (and I genuinely grimaced at some of the descriptions) underground prison has been created called the Furnace (strangely named after someone with the last name of furnace). So this becomes a vicious prison survival story – with gangs, nightmarish nighttime violence, and extremely terrifying adults. As with all prison stories, the question of escape comes up and unlikely friendships and alliances are made. Smith sets up his sequel nicely, but I don’t plan to read it. And I don’t think I’d hand it to a middle level reader either. Perhaps I’m too skittish. I would be curious what a middle level reader would have to say – probably a male because there are no female characters here after the opening pages. More importantly, though, if literature provides a mirror of our society, what does our current YA fiction say about our children?

Rise (Gotlieb)

I heard the author, Yosef Gotlieb, interviewed on the radio, and the premise of his novel, Rise, sounded so promising. I’ve been searching for a novel set in the Middle East that’s politically balanced, relevant, and current. This one promised to be it. There’s just one problem.

Gotlieb can’t write. The dialogue, in particular, is didactic, wooden, and dull. No one, I mean, no one speaks like this. Be clear. Gotlieb knows a lot; he clearly admires the geography and understands the issues. He just isn’t able to turn them into anything like interesting fiction. He wants to call this “a novel of contemporary Israel” but lapses into vagueness whenever he gets too close to anything that might connect with today’s headlines.

The politics of this piece are hopelessly naive – his ‘answers’ so ridiculously simple when you consider the situation he’s trying to address (the Israeli-Palestinian conflict). You find yourself waiting for the protagonists to sing “Kumbayah!”

In terms of the plot, the resolution is (and I won’t spoil it here) nothing more than another potshot fired into the dark – on two levels – against America, and against the GLBQT community.

What a waste of an opportunity.