Moonwalking with Einstein (Foer)

Ever since Nickeled and Dimed, authors with a good magazine story are doing what they can to stretch their idea into a book. Foer takes the same approach. Having covered the World Memory Championships, he allows himself to be talked into trying to compete the following year. There are entertaining ‘characters,’ and interesting (if lengthy) digressions. But my central problem is Foer is constantly trying to defend his project, and I just fundamentally disagree that “[progressive education has] brought with it costs for us as individuals and as citizens. Memory is how we transmit virtues and values, and partake of a shared culture” (208). While I agree that the distance we’ve moved away from asking students to know things is, at times, too far, it’s not rote memory – the kind Foer trains to improve – that transmits a shared culture, but memories and stories, which are, by their very definition, hazy around the edges.

He goes on to claim that “[h]ow we perceive the world and how we act in it are products of how and what we remember. And to the extent that we control our lives, we do so by gradually altering those habits, which is to say the networks of our memory. No lasting joke, invention, insight, or work of art was ever produced by an external memory” (269). This is Foer, even in his Epilogue, trying to hard to intellectualize his year-long effort – to make it larger than a stunt. Yes, internalized memories help us drive, use keys, eat, etc. – much of the basics of our lives – but to say that no work of art was ever produced by an external memory? How would he know? And, to me, such a claim doesn’t make sense. Monet’s internalized memory made it easy for him to paint, but it was externalized memory that allowed him to craft those haystacks.

Foer’s work is not without ambition. He challenges the status of a savant who comes across as a charlatan. And he’s not above making fun of himself either. For all of his work to improve his rote memory, Foer returns from dinner on the subway one night only to remember that he’d driven to the restaurant and can no longer remember where he parked his car.

Recommended, but only if you take it in magazine-sized bites.


Train Dreams (Johnson)

This novella, not that I’m certain what that word even means, is in Cormac McCarthy / William Faulkner territory, in terms of style and content, though Johnson’s story is one of the American West. Johnson recounts the life of one Robert Granier in ways both funny and heartbreaking. He has a way of rendering scenes in so few words but with a great deal of power – the death of Kootenai Bob, the dog who shoots Peterson, the fire, Eddie’s marriage proposal, the dream about his wife, Gladys.

Having only read Johnson’s Jesus’ Son before this (I’m not counting an ill-fated attempt to listen to Tree of Smoke in the car), I’m amazed at Johnson’s versatility. This is a great American story. All of the elements are present – trains, the West, progress, relationship with the land, anti-immigrant sentiment (see memorable opening scene), religion, etc..

Appropriate for school? Probably. Though I don’t envy having to deal with sophomore boys who want to snigger at a few moments about a cow as well as the probably modern perception of the line, “No beating around the bush.”

A quick and memorable read. The moment when Gladys drops the Bible. . . Absolutely amazing.

The Night Circus (Morgenstern)

I love the circus. I used to go a lot as a child, though I’m not sure that’s the reason. Perhaps I romanticize the life? I read Water for Elephants and liked it more than I expected. But Morgenstern’s book far surpasses that one. The atmosphere here – suggested by the details, the second person passages, and the behind-the-scenes moments – is stunning. For about 400 pages, I felt like I was there or at least certainly wanted to be there. The only flat scenes (those between Marco and Celia) were as awkward as they were inevitable. And when things fill apart, the prose does as well. It’s not surprising that a first book falls apart near the end (starting about page 400). In this case, the first 80% of the novel more than makes up for it. I adored the setting (Morgenstern’s also an artist) and the minor characters. I also finished the book in 4 days. I just wanted to be in Morgenstern’s world. I am tempted to look up some of it to see what, if anything, was based on a true story, but I prefer to leave it all to my imagination and Morgenstern’s. I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next.

A Dance to the Music of Time: Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant – 2nd Movement (Powell)

In this installment, we find Nick and his circle thinking, with their sense of “aristocratic idealism,” about the Spanish Civil War. Closer to home, the talk is of marriages and “the judgment of terrible silences” that often dooms them. Speaking of silences, our narrator’s wife, Isobel, has something akin to a cameo here. I can’t figure out what Powell is doing here. Why does she have such a small role?

Time is definitely passing here. Two characters die. Several have clearly grown older; others are on their second or third marriages. The sense of nostalgia is embodied in the title, as many characters remember a night at the restaurant which featured a long conversation about different kinds of lovers.

Miss Weedon absolutely steals her one scene.

What’s new here is a haunting sense of momentum. Time is definitely marching on in a way that seems as frightening as the Ghost Railway image evoked at the end of this section.

Wise Blood (O’Connor)

I’ve long been a fan of O’Connor’s short stories, so I was intrigued by the prospect of reading this, her first novel. Many of the familiar elements are here – religion (though it’s a vast oversimplification to see that this – or any of her work – is just about religion), the south, remarkable characters. There’s a Carson McCullers feel here, since the action is all set in one place, and the perspective shifts.  O’Connor’s writing is as sharp as it is sometimes strange. There’s violence not only in the physical sense, but in the way her characters live her lives. O’Connor writes so that you can see her people, not that you’d want to have anything to do with them. I really wonder how this was first received in 1949. After a quick search, I can’t find any original reviews, but I am curious to see the movie version (directed by John Huston). In the end, I prefer the short stories; this is a puzzling, foundational novel. You can see O’Connor trying things out, ideas she’d go on to refine in her short stories.

The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination (Coles)

Ever since I asked my own students to respond to it, I’ve been searching for a way to better formulate my own response to the question that Haroun poses in Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories: What’s the point of stories that aren’t even true?

Like Mark Edmonson in Why Read?, Coles explores that question here, albeit in a much more ambling manner. For Coles, reading literature is “not a bad start for someone trying to find a good way to live this life: a person’s moral conduct responding to the moral imagination of writers and the moral imperative of fellow human beings in need” (205). Literature should provide us with “genuine moral awareness” (197), an awareness necessary to have “moral confrontation[s]” (162) with ourselves.

There are aspects of this book that are dated. Coles, a Harvard professor, had no way of anticipating No Child Left Behind and its ripple effects. His interview subjects all seem to talk like Willy Loman and, aside from Ralph Ellison, he doesn’t seem aware of any other authors of color. Indeed, when he does discuss the impact of Ellison’s novel, he elaborates on its impact on white students.

These are quibbles about context, issues that belong to history. Coles’ main point, his argument about the call of stories, is really a kind of call to arms, both in terms of reading and writing in response to literature. This aspect of his book should resonate with us always.

Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original (Kelley)

This is a remarkable history of a remarkable man. But that’s too limiting. It’s also a story of American history, of the history of jazz, of the music business, of African-American history, and the history of mental illness. Robin D.G. Kelley has done an amazing job of chronicling Monk’s life and career. He’s definitely a sympathetic author (at times too much so), but it’s hard to argue with his presentation. Some of the writing about the music itself can be hard to follow, and his lists of songs, tours, musicians, etc. can be exhausting. Still, to learn of some of the musicians who were once on stage together is just astonishing.

The book made me feel naive. I had vague ideas about how white-owned record companies took advantage of black artists, but the details here are incredible. And I had no idea (and I think Kelley reveals it too late, considering Monk’s medical history) that the musician’s union did nothing to provide health insurance.

I also wish Kelley had done more to do what Steve Allen did when Monk appeared on his show. Allen asked Monk to play a piece traditionally and then in his style. What did Monk do differently? What marked be-bop? As for what Monk’s role should be in the history of jazz, I’m just not sure. I accept Kelley’s well-researched contention that he not only took jazz in a new direction, but that he influenced many others to do the same.

I just wish I could have seen him live!