Once Upon a Time in Vietnam (Neren)

The title certainly got my attention. The “Once Upon a Time” evokes any number of movie titles – epic films. And “Vietnam” carries so much weight still. When I learned from Neren’s Preface that he, himself, was not in Vietnam, I was (rightly and wrongly) suspicious. Could he write an authentic series of poems? I love the idea of creating a story out of a book of poems.  Neren is clearly aiming for a kind of epic.

This is the story of a Vietnam Vet who has come home with an unseen wound. He has gone insane and for this unseen wound, he gets no sympathy (even less than the regular soldiers who returned) and even less by way of help. At first, Neren’s carefully orchestrated and clean prose put me off. How could one write clean poems about Vietnam? But he won me over. The form contrasts with the topic and serves the story well. One day, the children with the ice cream and balloons decide our protagonist has had enough and they leave him (read: his mind) in peace.

These are thoughtful poems contained in a coherent collection. Should I ever have the opportunity to work with The Things They Carried again, this will be a great companion piece.

The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human (Gottschall)

In this age when the humanities are most definitely under attack and many seem convinced that education should revolve around STEM because that will allow our economy to compete (and thereby neglecting to defend their premise – I mean you, Thomas Friedman – that the purpose of education is to prepare students for careers), it is refreshing and welcome to read Gottschall’s argument that not only are we, by nature, attracted to stories, but we (as individuals, as a society) also need them. “Nature,” Gottschall asserts, “designed us to enjoy stories so we get the benefit of practice” (59). Practice for what? Real life. Because, he argues, “[w]hen we experience fiction, our minds are firing and wiring, honing the neural pathways that regulate our responses to real-life experiences” (65). Gottschall continues (136):

[F]iction, by constantly marinating our brains in the theme of poetic justice, may be partly responsible for the overly optimistic sense that the world is, on the whole, a just place. And yet the fact that we take this lesson to heart may be an important part of what makes societies work.

Stories (and the process of storytelling) still bind us together. The Internet has not, in Gottschall’s view, destroyed that feature. Instead, he says, “We are still having a communal experience; it’s just spread out over space and time” (137).

Stories shape us, both on a large and small scale. Hitler was influenced by Wagner. There is a connection between the violence a child consumes and the likelihood of him becoming violent.

I accept Gottschall’s argument about the inherent and probably deliberate flaws in memory. I am less convinced by his argument about the future. Gottschall supports an argument put forth by Edward Castronova that “we have begun the greatest mass migration in the history of  humanity. People are moving en masse from the real to the virtual world. Bodies will be marooned here on earth, but human attention is gradually ‘draining’ into the virtual world” (194-195). Our lives have become so empty, he contends, that we will soon turn to making ourselves protagonists of stories of our own making in an electronic world that others have constructed. That seems to me a description of a sad and lonely world. And I am referring to both the real world that would send so many to these virtual stories, and these virtual worlds that are meant as a kind of replacement.

Are we too immersed in stories? Do we have “the story equivalent of deep-friend Twinkies” (197)? I worry about this at times, but I’ve become less elitist over the years. I am willing to consider digital literacy, both for myself and in the classroom. I just need the right guide. Preferably a real one, sitting right next to me.

Gottschall’s writing is clear and fluid. He makes what seems to be called ‘evolutionary psychology’ go down easy. His habit of using a cryptic chapter opening as a hook gets tiresome. (The one about Hitler is downright annoying. Is there anyone who doesn’t know the story about art school? What’s the need for the big ‘reveal’ there?) Still, this is a thoughtful book about an important topic.

And now back to The Map and the Territory; a novel (made out of paper) beckons.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie (Mathis)

Mathis takes us from 1925, when Hattie first arrives in Philadelphia from Georgia and announces, “Mama. . . I’ll never go back. Never,” to 1980 when she prevents her granddaughter, Sala, from agreeing to accept Jesus Christ as her savior. Hattie has, she decides, lost enough of her children – to God, to the asylum where Sala’s mother, Cassie, has been presumably been taken, to feigned wealth, to attempted suicide – that she’s not going to lose another. Instead, she tries to comfort Sala, though she is “unaccustomed. . . to tenderness.” As Mathis writes —

Hattie knew her children did not think her a kind woman – perhaps she wasn’t, but there hadn’t been time for sentiment when they were young. She had failed them in vital ways, but what good would it have done to spend the days hugging and kissing if there hadn’t been anything to put in their bellies? They didn’t understand that all the love she had was taken up with feeding them and clothing them and preparing them to meet the world. The world would not love them; the world would not be kind.

Hattie is the most richly drawn character in this family, but everyone in this book who gets a story is evoked successfully if only in a few surgical strokes. We are with the trumpet player and the pastor, the wife who compromised and even the twins. We are rooting for all of them to survive, to make some kind of way in the world.

Mathis’ hand is all but invisible here. It seems so effortless, this history of a 20th century family trying to adjust to its matriarch’s northern migration. Mathis moves into each character, each moment in time with a grace that belies the fact that this is her first novel.

Here’s hoping that there are many more to come.


Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier (Tyson)

Neil DeGrasse Tyson first came to my attention because of posts people put on Facebook. I liked the way he spoke about science.

Recently, I had the opportunity to meet a couple of current astronauts, and that was quite a thrill. I’ve read The Right Stuff, and I love Apollo 13. I also remember exactly where I was when I heard that the Challenger had exploded.

In Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet (wait for it, there’s a connection here), Paris dresses as an astronaut to go to the masked ball. One year, I asked my students why they thought the costume designer dressed him that way. They had no ideas.

I had all of those thoughts, along with my own skepticism about the need for space travel in mind, when I went to hear the astronauts speak. When I saw Tyson’s book in the bookstore at the awesome Great Lakes Science Center  (www.greatscience.com), I thought I’d let Tyson try to convince me of what the astronauts hadn’t – namely, that funding space travel is necessary.

His argument, if I understand it, is this. Funding space travel is not as costly as the public perceives, but it needs to be driven by something – war (cold or otherwise) – or the funding can become inconsistent or vanish. He makes the case for its urgency and its relation to the growth of our economy less successfully than he says, in terms meant for those of us who struggle with astrophysics to understand, that we can send robots to space and that would be useful. But it is the human being who is capable of discovering and dealing with the unexpected. And that failures, however public and catastrophic they are, come with the package.

As someone more well-versed in the humanities, I was moved by his appeal to the intangible, to the possible. That a scientist would not lean on data to make his point was as refreshing as it was convincing. The investment, Tyson repeats and repeats (and this I blame on the editor, Avis Lang), is insignificant. The possible rewards, for the economy (driven in the future by those adept in science and technology, as everyone seems so sure), for our safety (I will be in the basement on April 13, 2029) and for our lives seem to me well-worth both the costs and the risks. I accept Tyson’s argument that we will go backwards by standing still.



Everything Begins & Ends at the Kentucky Club (Saenz)

This collection of short stories, the winner of the 2103 PEN / Faulkner Award, is about lives on the border – the border of Mexico and the United States (where the Kentucky Club is), the border between childhood and adulthood, the border between being Mexican and being American (and trying to be both at the same time), the border between being desperate to leave a place and fiercely loyal to it (and, again, trying to be both at the same time), and the border between yourself and another person. These boundaries are fragile, and Saenz’s writing is attuned perfectly to the tenderness and tension managing such borders requires. Characters struggle with their sexuality, with the legacies of their parents (there are a lot of brutal fathers here), and the temptations of various addictions – alcohol, drugs, sex, even violence.

By the 7th story, certain pieces became clear,  even a bit repetitive. Saenz’s protagonists build borders around themselves; they are damaged goods. I doubt even Danny, the abused student in “The Hurting Game,” can even recover.



The Mirrored World (Dean)

If you haven’t read Dean’s book, The Madonnas of Leningrad, do it. Right now. It’s that good.

Her subsequent collection of stories? Confessions of a Falling Woman? An absolute disaster. A sophomore slump? Perhaps. A successful author pushed to publish something quickly after a first success? That’s my guess. I presume that she already had the stories and was pressed by her publisher to get something out quickly.

So where does The Mirrored World stand? Much closer to Madonnas than Confessions. For one, Dean is back in Russia where her heart so clearly resides. Her description of both time and place (i.e., the Ice Palace) are remarkable. The plot is not as compelling as in Madonnas. It may have religious undercurrents that I missed (echoes of the story of the sisters, Mary and Martha, perhaps?). Still, the writing is rich and the story moves in interesting and sometimes surprising directions.

Two of my favorite passages:

There are mysteries that cannot be reasoned. Hail falls out of a clear sky and crushes the ripening field to rubble in an instant. The peasant who looks on and sees his broken stalks and blackened field may have lived well and piously or not, it does not change that his family will starve.

Christ instructed his disciples not to lay up their treasure on earth but in Heaven. For where your treasure is, there shall your heart be also. But the heart stubbornly attaches to familiar places and things and would rather have these, no matter how humble, than to exchange them for the promise of what is glorious but unknown.

For an engaging trip to Russia, read this. For a great book, read Madonnas. I hope she has another great one in her.

A Shoot in Cleveland (Roberts)

A well-meaning parent suggested that if I really wanted to learn about Cleveland, I should read Les Roberts’ mysteries. So I picked this one, pretty much randomly. It’s clear that Roberts (actually born in Chicago) has a great deal of affection for and knowledge about Cleveland. He knows the bars, back roads, and burger joints. What he doesn’t know is how to write.

At one point, he offers us the stunning insight that a son (the first murder victim) never got a hug from either of his two fathers.  Milan Jacovich, the protagonist, laments that he does not get to spend enough time with his sons (though he barely mentions them throughout the book).  And he actually compares  Jacovich’s  insight that leads him to solve the case to a lightning bolt. It’s not a lightning bolt, Les, it’s a deus ex machina, and it’s bad plotting.

So, there you go, I’ve tried one. I won’t do that again.