Holes (Sachar)

We’ve finished our latest read aloud. There were a few moments when we wondered if this was too intense for our children (violence, mostly), and I think we both did some editing as we read. But the kids were hooked by the puzzle of it all and delighted in figuring out the connections between the story of the past and the story of the present. It is an ambitious book. Sachar tackles challenging issues. We paused to talk more about this book than previous ones.

Now they want to see the movie? Has anyone seen it? Any good?

It was perhaps a bit too soon for this book, but it was exciting to see how much they (and, I admit, we) got into it.

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Crazy Brave (Harjo)

I know Joy Harjo is known mostly for her poetry and music, but I find her prose incredible. She teeters, to borrow her great image, on the brink of language.

This memoir is harrowing. (What good memoir isn’t?) I found myself grateful that Harjo had come out the other side of her experiences and found her voice. The book is really a hybrid – straight narrative, poetry, story (both true and not so), and commentary. And it’s all rendered in such gracious and rich prose. For example –

To imagine the spirit of poetry is much like imagining the shape and size of the knowing. It is a kind of resurrection light; it is the tall ancestor spirit who has been with me since the beginning, or a bear or a hummingbird. It is a hundred horses running the land in a soft mist, or it is a woman undressing for her beloved in firelight. It is none of these things. It is more than everything. . . I followed poetry.

I’m glad you did.

On Such a Full Sea (Lee)

Chang-Rae Lee was so close. I was just about ready to promote him to my elite list of authors whose work I buy in hardback when I happened upon a free advanced reader’s copy of this, his new book.

This is easily the most disappointing novel I’ve read in years. Why Lee chose to add to the collection of dystopian novels is beyond me. This is not to say that he has to stay stuck in a certain subject or style to succeed, but this novel just does not work.

Lee can still massage words, phrases and sentences like few others. That’s not the problem here.

First, there’s a logic problem. Given the set-up – an oh-so-wise Asian child-like character, Fan, leaves the not-so-cleverly named B-Mor, in search of her Reg, her love. How would those who’ve remained behind know anything of her story, let alone enough to narrate it? After all, much is made of the fact that nothing is known or seen of her after she exits the gates.

Second, there is the character problem. Fan. In another writer’s hands, would she be considered a broad stereotype? The wise, child-like Asian of few words who is loved by everyone and dispenses bromides like tic-tacs.

Third, there is the plot problem. Having set up his world and Fan’s escape, the plot lurches along. Lee relies much too often on the end of chapter surprise to move the story along.

Finally, it quickly becomes apparent that Lee really has nothing new to offer by way of insight. He comes across as a grumpy old man lamenting, albeit parenthetically, that kids these days wear their hats sideways or backwards or something. As a piece of social commentary, this book is all too familiar.

The pages felt like they weighed 100 pounds each. Thanks to a snow day, I was able to stay up late and finish it. Lee remains on the paperback list.

A Collection of Indian Poems (Tagore Gitanjali)

I’m not sure what the proper last name is. I always thought it was Tagore, but the edition I have has Gitanjali in larger and fancier script.

I chose this because I’d always heard of Tagore, but had not read any of his work. The introduction to the collection by Yeats, though overly long, made the collection seem quite promising, but I never really got into the spirit of this collection.

I chose the word ‘spirit’ deliberately. Each prose poem is an opportunity to praise the divine as the protagonist moves and stumbles through life and prepares for death. Few of these numbered poems really caught my eye or ear, and their sameness grew wearisome after a while. Perhaps that says more about my own religious views than the poems themselves.

Franny and Zooey (Salinger)

It seems daunting to me to try to write about this book in isolation. Should I ignore what I know of Salinger’s life? Should I ignore The Catcher in the Rye? I will try to do more of the former than the latter. Much is made of Salinger’s life. I can’t help but know about some of it. But I haven’t read the new biography. Nor have I seen the movie. I don’t think I’ll end up doing either.

I don’t think I’ve read this book before, though much of it seems familiar – perhaps from reading commentary about Salinger and his work, perhaps from his short stories. Perhaps I’ve read it before.

I enjoyed the first section with Franny more, though the scene with Zooey and his mother in the bathroom is amazing. So is the phone call between the two siblings that ends the book. It should be clear by now; I loved this book.

Salinger, it seems (enter Holden) to be after authenticity. Both Zooey and Franny have a strong Salinger-ian aversion to all things phony, especially any phoniness they find in themselves. Hence, Franny’s decision to abandon acting. But in that final moving phone call between Zooey and Franny, he seems to help her find her (and I use this next word deliberately) faith. She can finally get some rest.

He has passed on the wisdom their older brother, Buddy, had written to him (68):

Act. . .when and where you want to, since you feel you must, but do it with all your might.

They Say I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing (Graff and Birkenstein)

This book has a few very basic and important ideas. The authors, writing more for writing students than for teachers, defend the notion of using templates in academic writing. Their primary example, one that can extend into classroom discussions, is the notion of “They Say / I Say.” This is predicated on the notion that to write an academic piece is to enter a conversation and that a writer (and a participant in a class discussion) must acknowledge what has been said before prior to offering a new take on the argument.

Having tried a few of the ideas (a template for writing introductions, the notion of a biased summary of the opposition) that Graff and Birkenstein offer with some of my struggling writers, I can say that they really work. More controversial is their defense of the personal pronoun  in the academic essay. I know I shouldn’t have done it (especially not solo), but I gave the students some freedom with this, and most of them did not abuse it.

There are only disappointing things about reading this book.

First, I wish I had read it much sooner in my teaching career.

Second, when I was in the middle of it, I learned that there is a new edition (http://www.amazon.com/They-Say-Academic-Writing-Edition/dp/0393935841/ref=dp_ob_title_bk), with more supplemental readings. The one in the 2nd Edition, about fast food, is an excellent piece to use for practice with students.

The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-44 (Atkinson)

Atkinson’s book, the second in his Liberation Trilogy (liberationtrilogy.com), is wonderful. Atkinson’s skill, also evident in the first book, is his ability to move the camera back and forth between the big picture and the small moment as well as between the famous leader and the ordinary soldier. The names are here – Patton, relegated to the sidelines in part because of his temper. Churchill, aware of the declining importance of the British contribution to the war effort and its overall place in the world. But Atkinson’s implicit thesis is that the war is less about its leaders and more about the ordinary soldiers. That, in fact, the victory was less about any kind of tactical supremacy and more about simply having more people and more stuff than the Germans did. The logistics of the battles are amazing as are, sadly, the casualty numbers, especially since, I learned quite late, not everyone thinks it was a campaign worth fighting. I also learned that we came close to using chemical warfare, and the preparations for such an attack ended up costing us dearly.

Atkinson does an impeccable job of writing historical narrative. He is, first and foremost, telling a story.

And after all those battles and casualties and miles, they finally take Rome – the day before D-Day.

The third book, The Guns at Last Light, is out in hardback. I’ll wait until it comes out in paperback. I’ll need that much time to recover.