Red Azalea (Min)

It was hard, at times, to remember that this is a memoir. The world Min inhabited, though familiar from history, seems so astounding when examined on the individual level. The intensity of the obsession with Mao. The discrepancy between ideals and reality. More than a few times I found myself shaking my head. How did this happen? Min has interesting tone here, largely created by unadorned syntax. This is, simply, her story. Her life on a farm in her assigned role as a peasant. Her introduction to life in the movies. It’s just hard to imagine that this is such a recent story.

I admit that some of the sexuality got to me a bit – in that I don’t think I could use it in the classroom. But it’s a well-told slice of history, something to bring a textbook chapter to life.


The Game of Silence (Erdrich)

In her author’s note, Erdrich says that she was writing this at the same time as she was writing its prequel, The Birchbark House. It shows; this is definitely more of a continuation than a sequel – so much so I found it took me some time to get re-oriented to this world. The story meanders like the previous one did, and that’s not a criticism. It is, insofar as I can claim to understand it, the Ojibwe way of telling stories (and stories within stories). Time dictates story; not vice-versa. So I wonder about the young reader Erdrich is aiming for? Omakayas, her protagonist, is coming of age. She must accept her dreams. She has an annoying younger brother and an older sister who is in love. Her way of life is being threatened by the coming of the whites. There is an interesting undercurrent of gender issues here. What is the role of the Ojibwe woman? And of course, there’s the memorable Old Tallow and her dogs. This book is atmospheric, though not compelling.

1Q84 – Part III (Murakmi)

If you asked Bob Dylan what this book was about, he’d probably say, “About 1150 pages.” I’m not sure I can do much better than that. There are a lot of twos – characters, images, symbols, worlds, etc.. There is some exploration of reality, of creativity, of a notion of God. Is it, in the end, a love story? I’m not sure. Is there more coming? Some imagery suggests that there may be more to the story. With just a handful of characters, Murakami has created what I expect will be his epic masterpiece. The story (and the story within the story. . . and the story within the story within the story) are still vivid for me as are the characters.

I still wonder both about Murakami’s physical descriptions of women and sex as well as his translators. Some passages (particularly dialogue and interior thoughts) can seem wooden. And I admit I longed for just one character who would give a straight answer. I admired the way Murakami made some of the unlikable characters sympathetic and allowed others to just walk off stage with no clear ending.

If you’re wondering whether it’s worth the time 1157 pages takes, I would say it is. It’s well-paced and the grand scale allows Murakami to develop his trademark oddness rather than just spring it on you.

No Good Deeds (Lippman)

The prologue grabbed my attention right away, setting up not only a promising plot, but also offering astute commentary on today’s Baltimore (where I lived for three years – down the block from Lippman actually – not that she knew it).

And Lippman’s protagonist, Tess Monaghan, is not quite as snappy and sarcastic as Spenser or Easy Rawlins (which in my mind, is a good thing).

Lippman does have a tendency to over-explain her images and dialogue, either not trusting her writing or not trusting her readers. She could do with some editing.

As astute as she is about voicing the racial realities of life in Baltimore (she’s married to David Simon, of The Wire fame), she makes some curious choices about two of the main characters. One choice, to create a character with an Arabic last name, serves the plot. This is a post 9/11/2011 story, and Lippman makes that matter. The other, a black man, well, I can’t quite figure out the rationale behind it.

The title is interesting. Obviously suggesting the rest of the cliche (“goes unpunished”), it could speak to the fact that there are no unequivocally good deeds in the book or, more interestingly, that the self-diagnosed white liberal characters (Tess and her boyfriend, Crow) are operating, in their effort to help a character, more from guilt than anything else.

Lippman does resort to an action movie cliche (mano v mano battle) near the end, which is regrettable, but this is an interesting and complex story, one that is to a great extent, reflective of the Baltimore I know.

Linda Emond, a great actress (though not the nicest person, in my limited interactions with her) does a great job reading the novel.

The Ramayana (Narayan)

This epic has been compressed into 171 pages. It took me a while to get into the flow of the story, and I’m sure when I try to teach it, I’ll need to rely on the List of Characters Narayan graciously provides. This is an epic in the true sense of the word, with larger-than-life characters, incredible battles, tests, loyal sidekicks – all of it. There are enough similarities to some of the Greek stories to make that another way in. I do wonder about the women in this story – Sita, the King’s wife (can’t come up with her name right now). Are there any 3-dimensional women? (I’m willing to skip the “Are there any good women?” question.) And what will this do to a student’s perception of Indian mythology? Similar to¬†Arabian Nights, there is much in here that is about the role of storytelling in a culture’s, well, story.

Now, to look at Patel’s version in its graphic novel format as well as Richman’s anthology of Ramayana stories. How to make this all work?

Meanwhile, Lahiri and Roy lurk in the shadows.

Why Read? (Edmonson)

This may seem like a curious book for me to choose, considering how much I read and how much I love to read. But periodically, I get into these funks and wonder why fiction matters. “What,” as Haroun asks his father in the parable Haroun and the Sea of Stories, “is the point of stories that aren’t even true?”

These moments in my life, together with my introduction to what is, in my world, being called 21st Century Education or Learning-in-Depth, make me wonder about the future of stories.

Edmonson thinks he has the answer or at least the response. He would probably claim that he has multiple answers and that these multiple paths represent the democracy that literature affords, but it takes him over 100 pages to even mention an author of color.

If the study of literature is, as he argues (pretty persuasively), meant to help make us better, Edmonson shies away from the difficult work here – What is better? He employs the full thesaurus to try to avoid calling a book ‘great’ (though he does use that word), but given the examples he provides (and the ones that are omitted), what are we to infer about his sense of the multiple paths? About the range of texts he would have us hand to our students?

The emphasis on self-knowledge concerns me as well. Edmonson wants us to start with helping our students know themselves, to know what they believe, before they examine the worlds and ways of others. But students are often too self-involved to begin with, too interested in their own stories. I’m not denying that it’s useful to have them challenge their own stories or their own privilege, but I’m not sure I’d start so overtly with that.

Edmonson also puts a lot of power in the hands of the teacher. Literature teachers are, in his view, supposed to help their students find ways to better (there’s that word again) selves. I’ve known a great number of teachers in my time. There can be a tendency among some of them to think they should be teaching life and not literature. Based on what I know of their lives, that doesn’t make me very comfortable. I agree with Edmonson that we should encourage our students to be open to influence, but I’d like the primary influence to be the writers and not the teachers.

Edmonson does challenge (rightly, I think) the traditional critical essay and what’s become a superficial phrase (“critical thinking”). I’m eager to share his section on historicizing literature with many colleagues. There’s too much reliance on Freud throughout, particularly in the rather dismissive section on Shakespeare.

Edmonson wants to know whether we can “live” the pieces of literature we teach and uses this premise to dismiss Dickens, for he offers no solutions.

For all of these concerns, Edmonson’s words are needed now, as we face the onslaught of education based on problem-solving and action. Where is the place for contemplation? I also do not get much of a sense of joy from Edmonson. Does literature – even literature we teach – always have to make our lives better? Can’t we learn to relish an artist at work? Can’t we laugh?

A liberal education still matters. In fact, I’d argue, it’s more necessary now than ever. We must engage with the words and discover our own answer or response to Haroun’s question. What is the point of stories that aren’t even true? We make our world with words. Indeed our world (in both the Bible and in Our Town) is made my words. We have to learn how to read them.

1Q84 – Part II (Murakami)

Sometimes, the middle part of a trilogy can be a letdown, serving only as a bridge from the beginning to the end. Not so the case here. Murakami not only amps up the weirdness, but also does much more to intertwine his two narratives and his two narrators. There are a few nice surprises in the plot and even a few tender moments (I’m trying to avoid spoilers). Like the characters, I’m mystified by what Murakmi is doing, but unlike the characters, I’m enjoying letting it all unravel. I’m looking forward to part III.