The House of the Scorpion (Farmer)

This was a re-read for me. It’s the summer reading for 9th graders at my new school. I remember being impressed with how topical it was the first one – how there was so much to discuss – cloning, immigration, utopia / dystopia, individual and society, etc.. At that point, I don’t think I knew of (m)any young adult books that were so challenging.

Since then, I’ve spent more time with young adult fiction books and have become increasingly impressed with how thoughtful and well-constructed they can be.

Farmer’s book holds up well. I’ve got some questions about its pacing, but it certainly is evocative, both in terms of the issues mentioned above and in terms of setting. Aside from Matt, the characterization is not strong; most of the other characters (and there are a lot) seem to have one personality trait.

And who really killed Furball?

Has anyone read its sequel, The Lord of Opium? Thoughts on that one?


Neither Wolf Nor Dog (Nerburn)

Kent Nerburn gets a call, or called. Dan, an 80-year-old Native American, wants to speak. Based on Nerburn’s work on previous books that Dan has read, he has selected Nerburn (as he’s called throughout the book) to tell his story. After a few false starts, they, along with Dan’s sidekick, Rover, go on a “little trip.” Nerburn struggles as a writer, as a white man who is a writer and a family man, but he finally seems to listen to what Dan has to say. In terms of structure, I think Nerburn chose wisely. He lets Dan speak for himself. At times, it feels like Nerburn is perilously close to making the story be about himself. He’s not irrelevant, to be sure, but to make this his story would be to fall into one of the dangerous areas that Dan laments.

There are times when I questioned Nerburn’s word choice. Why, for example, does he persist in calling the Grandfather at Annie’s house “the legless” man even after he knows who he is? (The man has lost his legs – diabetes.)

To his credit, Nerburn keeps his chapters short and the story moving. He is not afraid of making himself look badly.

This is a powerful and provocative book – one quite worthy of discussion.

The Art Forger (Shapiro)

Shapiro writes well about art and this includes her descriptions of the Gardener Museum. And the plot starts off in a promising, if predictable way. The premise is based on a real theft ( But the story quickly gets out of Shapiro’s control. The plot she’s established requires too much exposition and the narrative form she’s chosen doesn’t justify it. The characters become types rather than characters and the mystery elements she concocts become convoluted and just plain silly. I simply didn’t believe the story or the characters. I was always aware of Shapiro’s hand in everything. Also, I was annoyed at the pretense of historical fiction – the way that Degas and Isabella Stewart Gardener becomes pawns to manipulate in this silly story. I just don’t think she needed this historical anchors. Her own author’s note at the end of the novel indicates she was mostly interested in writing about Gardener herself. Indeed, Gardener’s ‘letters’ are the only well-chosen narrative form, as they allow for still more exposition, but are framed in such a way that such exposition makes sense.

The New Jim Crow (Alexander)

I made a mistake. I heard Alexander speak. She didn’t have her notes or slides (lost luggage); she was still amazing. She’s definitely one of the most impressive speakers I’ve ever heard. Between that and reading a summary of this book, I thought I got it; I understood her argument and agreed with it. So why I read the book?

But it nagged at me. And when it came out in paperback, I got it. And, like others, I struggled with what happened to Trayvon Martin, both in life and death. I needed to do something. I needed to better educate myself. So the book came off the shelf.

And I was and am absolutely floored. In 6 compactly written chapters, Alexander makes the case that the so-called War on Drugs is in fact a deliberate method of social control akin to the Jim Crow laws. And she has me absolutely persuaded. (Has anyone written a response?) She proceeds step-by-step from the beginnings of the War on Drugs to the election of Barack Obama to show how King was right – that we need a Poor People’s Movement, that what needs to change is not political or social (things aren’t so clear anymore) – but systemic. And she challenges us to do it and, in Chapter 6, raises questions and ideas that merit serious consideration.

Alexander is careful, too careful at times, to be sure we know that she doesn’t condone crime. One blanket disclaimer would have done it for me. And I could have used a specific example to support her point about re-districting. But these are minor quibbles.

There are no sacred cows here. Alexander criticizes Obama (and says why others are reluctant to and how that’s a problem), affirmative action and civil rights organizations.

Alexander knows you can’t read this book without wanting to do something. So she provides suggestions on her website —

Read this. The world won’t ever look the same again.

The Little Prince (de Saint-Exupery)

I know that some swear by this book, but as I was reading it aloud, it was difficult to see why. It certainly has the quality of a parable. And I know something of the circumstances behind its publication. (Should I need to know all of them to understand the book?) There were moments that made me grin with recognition, but, pictures notwithstanding, I’m not sure the kids enjoyed it too much. Or maybe I’m just one of those grown-ups that de Saint-Exupery mocks gently, one of those adults who just doesn’t understand.

Autobiography of Red (Carson)

The third item that came up when I googled Anne Carson was a New York Times article entitled, “The Inscrutable Brilliance of Anne Carson.” ‘Inscrutable’ seems like an appropriate word. I’d heard and read so much about her doing interesting work that I wanted to try something. I read all of the words in this novel in verse, but I’m not sure I understood all of it. It’s engaging, but it felt like there was something more that was just out of my reach. Ah well. I gave it a shot.

Fall Higher (Young)

It was sometimes hard to hear the music of these poems. Everything seemed a bit off-beat (and I mean that in both senses of the word). I wonder what these poems are like when Young reads them.

Sometimes, it seemed that the truth might lie in between in the lines, in what Young chose to leave out. My favorite whole poem? “Non-Apologia.”

Some other snippets —

From “Infinitive Ode” –

A sword pierces a cloud / like a smile blown from a face.

A longer excerpt, from “Undertow” –

And the sea heaves and cleaves and seethes,

shoots snot out, goes to be only yo wake

shouting in the mansion of the night, pacing,

pacing, making tea than spilling it,

sudden out-loud laughter snort, Oh what the

hell, I probably drove myself crazy

thinks the sea, kissing all those strangers,

forgiving them no matter what, liars

in confession, vomiters of plastics

and fossil fuels but what a stricken

elixir I’ve become even to my becalmed depths,

while through its head swim a million

fishes seemingly made of light

eating each other.

From “After My Own Heart” –

even shadows / sometimes sit with their heads in their hands.

From “Man Overboard” –

I thank that chevron on the wing

for fostering an aesthetic sense that beauty

wasn’t extraneous but a part of flying.

And memorably, from “Vacationland” –

Out there / somewhere is the end of everything

but only the mountains are comfortable

with the idea. The rest of us paddle,

paddle between what we can’t get

away from and where we don’t want to go.

That is both beautifully said (note the line breaks) and absolutely true.