A Dance to the Music of Time: 2nd Movement – The Kindly Ones (Powell)

It was startling to have this section start with a flashback to Nicholas’ childhood, what he, in the end calls the time of his loss of innocence. Then we quickly move back into his regular social circles where he travels among a familiar crowd of people, many of whom have changed their relationships, but all of whom still seem to be interconnected. As far as I can tell, there’s only one new character (Stanley Jeavons), and no one knew he existed. It is Jeavons, though, who seems to think he can help our protagonist, now a bit past thirty with a pregnant wife in the country, get into the army – one of the more active decisions he’s made in the first 6 of these 12 novels. There are a few memorable moments in this one – the Seven Deadly Sins photographs, the preparation for Uncle Giles’ funeral, the naked parlour maid. But most memorable of all is that WW2 is finally upon us, and war is changing everyone, including the city. Nicholas’ circle is still peripheral to the war; it’s a kind of social inconvenience, it would seem. But perhaps the 3rd movement takes us into darker places.


NW (Smith)

I’ve read two different (overlapping? contradictory?) explanations as to why Smith played with form in this novel. The first is that each character needed her or his own form of self-expression. In an interview with Book Forum, she said, “I just thought that each character needed a different style because they do genuinely experience the world so differently that it would be false to express them all in the same prose style.” [She also goes on to say something much more worrisome (and arrogant?): “And I also did it just to interest myself. You can never underestimate how boring writing is and how much you need to find new ways to do it—otherwise, what’s the point?”]

The second, from a review called, “Two Paths to the Novel” has her wondering about realism. She writes, “Is it really the closest model we have to our condition? Or simply the bedtime story that comforts us most?”

I hope the first explanation was the more honest one. To play with form for its own sake (or to keep from being bored) is generally material best kept in one’s journal, I think. It makes me wonder whether the idea to experiment with form drove the plot and characters or whether it worked the other way around.

I do agree that these characters do see the world very differently, though at first, the two main women (Keisha and Leah), see it quite similarly. They are the best of friends. Wouldn’t it have been useful therefore for Smith to use the same style for them until the differences and cracks started to emerge? Though much has been written about how this novel is about a place, NW, for me, it was about what happens when we drift apart from those who knew us best in high school even though geography forces us to remain in their proximity. These characters can’t get away from their neighborhood, and so they definitely can’t get away from the people in it.

With a few exceptions, Smith’s stylistic choices did not get in my way. Many, in fact, enhanced the story. I can see, though, why this took her seven years. The plot is amazingly well constructed. Her ending shows just how far she’s come from White Teeth, a great novel with an unfortunate ending. There, Smith did not know what to do with all of the chaos she created. Here, she controls the chaos.

Selfishly, as the two women move into careers, I was longing for a glossary in order to understand all of the terms involved in their respective careers.

A marvelous novel. I hope to see her next week (https://events.umn.edu/021007). I just hope it’s not seven years before the next one.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Twain)

Yes, I’ve read it before and I even taught it once (mistake). But this time I was reading it with my eye on two things –

Why is it considered so central to American Literature?

Does the ending diminish its status as a classic?

At the risk of violating Twain’s amusing epigraph, the story structure seems pretty traditional. Things happen and our hero decides to hit the road. There are encounters along the way (as there are in every journey story), but Huck is trying to construct some sense of morality in a ridiculously immoral world. On this score, I think Twain achieves something classical; he’s appealing to the reader’s moral imagination. The lines are not, and I use this cliche deliberately, black and white, and Huck is trying to figure out the boundaries.

The prevalence of the “n” word is troubling. I hadn’t remembered how regularly it came up. And the characterization of Jim has some iffy moments. Did he need to be so naive to make this work? Or is this just Huck’s view of him?

Then Huck is taken for Tom and Tom shows up. There the novel turns sour for me. Why did Twain need this kind of epilogue? Do we blame it on Tom? Do we call Twain a racist? All I know is that it left a sour taste in my mouth. Can a book be 2/3 of a classic?

The Flat World and Education (Darling-Hammond)

The subtitle for this book is “How America’s Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future.” I have to think about a few assumptions I made based on that piece of the title. I expected ‘equity’ to refer to racial equity and because, I thought, she was writing about that kind of equity, I assumed Darling-Hammond was African-American. She is, instead, writing about funding equity in the schools and now that I’ve looked at the back of the book and seen her speak in person, I can say with complete confidence that she’s white.

Anyway, on to the book. This is a thorough, very thorough examination of the origins, consequences and remedies for funding inequities in our schools. Like others, Darling-Hammond points to other countries (Finland, South Korea, Singapore) to show that changes can be made. To be fair, she also points to positive examples in the U.S. – North Carolina under Governor James B. Hunt, for example. (This is probably a reason for Hunt to have declined to provide a glowing blurb for the back of the book, but that’s another matter.) Darling-Hammond’s point holds, though – where there is political will, money and results will follow.

I would have liked Darling-Hammond to put some of her proposed remedies in the form of a dialogue with those who oppose her. I suspect that the outcry opposing some of her funding re-distribution plans would prevent them from happening in the form she advocates.

If you want any evidence for your arguments about public education, it’s here. She’s done the research. The prose can be a bit of a slugfest to get through, but it’s well worth it. We can all learn from this book.

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (Lin)

What a stunning, inspiring and wonderful book. This novel, loosely based on Chinese myths and folk tales, is gorgeously written and illustrated. There are more than a few times when I got chills – because of its beauty and power.

And this is not just a book for children. There’s a key moment that reminds me of the peacock scene in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon – both are about what you need to do in order to literally and figuratively fly.

Minli, Lin’s protagonist, is a hero for all time. She’s so relentlessly positive – which is as rare as it is welcome. This book is why we need to make sure we keep telling stories.

And now there’s a sequel – Starry River of the Sky.

I really enjoyed this and will definitely look for more of her work.


Familiar (Lennon)

This is a quirky and intriguing book. Something happens to Elisa on the way back from a trip. It’s hard to say what it is exactly, and she spends much of the book trying to figure it out without causing too much damage to those around her. She explores the fringes of science as well as psychiatry, and I liked that Lennon never really gave us one answer. I admit I expected some religious inquisitiveness, but maybe that’s just what I would have done.

Lennon writes well. What’s striking is that he seems equally at home describing two iterations of an old, married couple (Elisa and Derek) as well as the lives of the couple’s two sons, Silas and Sam. In addition, Lennon is clearly at home in the on-line world as well.

If you liked the movie Memento, then this novel is for you.

The Angel Esmeralda (DeLillo)

Like others, I suspect, I became obsessed with DeLillo after reading White Noise. I absolutely inhaled Underworld and am pretty comfortable calling it the Ulysses of the second half of the 20th century. I went on quite a run after that, liking some, being confused by others, and eventually burning out a bit. Still, I hung on there. I enjoyed Cosmopolis (though the casting in the movie version made me stay away from that), The Body Artist, and Point Omega. I was disappointed by Falling Man. I think, perhaps, that he tried to write that story too soon after the events that inspired it.

I waited on this collection of short stories for a while. But once I started, I remembered my absolute love for his work. First of all, his dialogue is masterful. His grasp of the short story form is, in my opinion, just stunning. Each one is different. They keep you off-balance. Some seem to be seeds of story lines that show up elsewhere (the title story and one plot line in Underworld or “The Starveling” and Point Omega), but it’s like reading rough drafts of masterpieces. They are still pretty damn good. So is this whole collection.