Crow (Wright)

I appreciate this historical basis for this novel (the Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 in Wilmington, North Carolina). There’s a need for books that focus on historical parts of the African-American story aside from the Civil War, slavery, and Civil RIghts. (I know there are, but writers seem to gravitate to those eras as well as whatever counts for modern times.) This novel, however, does not completely rise to the challenge. The plot is episodic; each section could come with its own headline. “This is the scene when Moses (subtle name, huh?) loses his innocence” or “This is the scene where Moses learns that not all white people are bad.” The novel picks up momentum by the end, but it’s a challenge to care about what are largely stock characters. The Grandmother who believes in the old ways. The father who speaks in speeches that seem to be straight out of a manifesto. Is the emotional distance the fault of Wright the writer? Or is it her effort to stay as close as she could to the characters and facts of the actual riot? In her Historical Note, she writes,  “[w]here possible, I quoted word for word from speeches and documents” (294). I appreciate the idea behind that and emphasize the need for more stories, this one does not have enough craft or spark to it to make me want to recommend it for students.


Arctic Dreams (Lopez)

This was a challenging book to get through, but it was definitely worth the persistence. Lopez is an excellent observer and writes well. Less often, though, or at least less than I would have liked, he steps back to offer some insight. In the end of chapter 5, “Migration,” he offers his most sustained commentary which serves to pull a lot of the book together. His thesis is always explicit – that we need to reconsider our relationship with the land and move from a less linear, time-focused approach to a more spatial one. We need, Lopez argues, to avoid imposing our expectations on the Eskimos and the animals of the Arctic and instead work backwards from our observations.

I marked many passages that struck me to the core and resonated with a lot of the American Indian reading I’ve been doing lately, but I think this one, from the Epilogue (413), sums the book up the best.

No culture has yet solved the dilemma each has faced with the growth of a conscious mind: how to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in all life, when one finds darkness not only in one’s culture but within oneself. If there is a stage at which an individual life becomes truly adult, it must be when one grasps the irony in its unfolding and accepts responsibility for a life lived in the midst of such a paradox. One must live in the middle of contradiction because if all contradiction were eliminated at once life would collapse. There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of a leaning into the light.

Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy (Schmidt)

This is a beautiful story. Schmidt handles the challenge of racial tensions with such wonderful sensitivity. The word “colored” is used once, and the tension is established. It looms over the plot and the town. There are no happy endings here, just compromises and the pain of growing up. Schmidt knows his adolescent characters and his adolescent readers. This novel is pitched perfectly. By the time I got to the passage below, I was near tears myself:

The world turns and the world spins, the tide runs in and the tide runs out, and there is nothing more beautiful and more wonderful in all its evolved forms than two souls who look at each other straight on. And there is nothing more woeful and soul-saddening than when they are parted. Turner know that everything in the world rejoices in the touch, and everything in the world laments in the losing.

What a stunning excerpt, both in form and content. Those lines are a master class all by themselves.

Here’s more about the author –

And I’m going to have to borrow a middle school student, so I can go see the show –

Memories of Rain (Gupta)

Memories of Rain is a remarkable novel. That it is also Gupta’s first novel makes it that much more astonishing. Like Nicholson Baker’s Room Temperature, there seems to be little plot – a woman leaves her husband. But here (as with Baker’s book), there’s so much more. The sentences and paragraphs (both generally quite epic) require the reader to dive in and swim along with the amazing current of her prose. (Forgive the water metaphors; there’s simply no other way to describe it.) The syntax is sensual and the peeling back of the proverbial onion is subtle and smooth. The image of the abandoned husband sitting amidst the abandoned birthday party is haunting and absolutely right. As a book lover, the line – “it must have been sad, she had thought, to belong to a household where one could hide things in books” (181) – made me underline it. Now if I only had some Tagore at hand.

(Thanks, Lena.)

A Mercy (Morrison)

I was uncertain about whether to try a Morrison novel as an audio book. As soon as I started it and realized Morrison herself was reading it, I was delighted. I’d listen to her read the phone book. Her writing and her delivery are spare; the narrative and characters, compelling. As soon as the narrative switched point of view, I got a bit lost, but I was willing to roll with it, and a long drive helped me get oriented again. I was immersed in Morrison’s world, though one like – “She dreamed a dream and it dreamed right back at her” – reminded me of a Dylan lyric — both obscure and delightful. So I’ve heard all the words and will read all of them. One day. The post-story interview with Morrison is delightful.

Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher (Brookfield)

This is a remarkably thorough and thoughtful book. Though I can’t say many of the concepts or arguments struck me as particularly new, they are presented in a clear and thoughtful manner. What is new here for the veteran educator is a series of practical instruments designed to make it easy for you and / or the teachers you supervise to engage in meaningful and critical reflection about teaching. I also appreciate Brookfield’s definition of critical reflection. He wants us to look beyond the surface question of, “How did that lesson go?” to examine systemic issues that create challenges. He contends that “reflection becomes critical when it has two distinctive purposes. The first is to understand how considerations of power undergird, frame, and distort educational processes and interactions. The second is to question assumptions and practices that seem to make our teaching lives easier but actually work against our own best long-term interests” (8).  He wants us to consider our autobiographies as learners, how things look from the students’ perspective, how things look from the perspective of our colleagues, and theoretical literature. Reflection, in Brookfield’s view, is not easy. Nor should it be. Too much is at stake.

I would love to take a class with Brookfield.

God is Red (Deloria Jr.)

When Deloria compares the Biblical God to Saddam Hussein (150), and then wonders if Hussein really deserves such a bad rap, I knew this book wasn’t for the classroom. Deloria’s comments about organized religion – particularly Christianity, though Judaism is in his sights as well – range from seeming like questions to an outright assault. These comments are provocative and made me long for an essay by essay response. It’s less one particular essay, though, than the momentum of all of them. Deloria distinguishes between space and time-based thinking and explains how it impacts history, religion, and our connection with the land. By the time I finished slogging my way through this apparently classic collection (all the more shame on Fulcrum Press for publishing a re-issue with so many glaring typos), I found myself at least able to understand his argument and hard-pressed to counter it.

Some favorite passages:

When the fundamentalists seized on abortion as an issue, they found the key to political power. Thus was created the irony of American life. The fundamentalists could care less about human life after birth (55-56).

The world. . . is not a global village so much as a series of non-homogeneous pockets of identity that must eventually come into conflict because they represent different historical arrangements of emotional energy (64).

A major task remains for Western man. He must quickly come to grips with the breadth of human experiences and understand these experiences from a world viewpoint, not simply a Western one (107).