How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One (Fish)

After all of the years of teaching writing, I’ve started to think that it’s time to start with the smallest element possible – the sentence. Like other books I’ve read recently, Fish argues for the idea of using templates. This, taken together with They Say, I Say and Don and Jenny Killgallon’s work, has definitely persuaded me not only of the value of templates, but also of the need to treat the literature I teach as a mentor text. This can be hard to do when I don’t control the reading selections, but the idea of moving as seamlessly as possible between reading and writing is a great one.

Two minor quibbles with the book –

First, I wish Fish (sorry about the rhyme) had done more to distinguish reading and writing fiction sentences and reading and writing non-fiction sentences. Second, if you are going to publish a book about sentences, you need to keep the sentence present. It became annoying to constantly flip back and forth between the sentence and Fish’s commentary on it.


The Son (Meyer)

I really loved Meyer’s American Rust, so I picked up his new one as soon as it became available in paperback. I appreciate his versatility. He’s moved from the Rust Belt to the Texas-Mexico border and from a focus on one time period to three. The alternating voice approach remains. But this one is more epic; perhaps something set in Texas has to be. Still, it took a good long while (perhaps even 250 pages) for me to get any sense of momentum. I’m glad I stuck with it, though. The characters grew on me, and their interconnectedness began to make more and more sense as the story progressed. And the introduction of the modern changed form and content (as it should).

Meyer did his homework, and he’s not shy about sharing details. Lots of details. At times, it seems he’s aping Cormac McCarthy, without McCarthy’s sense of restraint. Ultimately, though, he makes the style work for him and his story.

I am not sure about the title, though. It hardly seems apt. This is about more than just one son and, in fact, one of the most striking characters is the daughter.

This is Texas history and, as such, it is also American history. It’s an interesting survey and when it intersects with the real and the recent, I was reminded of just how much this country has changed in such a short time.

I am curious to see where Meyer takes us with his next novel, though I probably won’t snap it up as soon as it hits the ‘New Paperback’ section.

Chasing Utopia: A Hybrid (Giovanni)

I had the great good fortune to attend a reading by Nikki Giovanni at Case Western Reserve University last year. She’s a remarkable presence and her storytelling (if that’s even the right word for it) was amazing. She read a few poems – I’m sure she did – but they didn’t really make an impact on me. Upon request, she recited one at the end and asked for and received help to finish it. But the newest work in Chasing Utopia does not amount too much. The poems seem slight – even dashed off. They might carry more weight if they were delivered by the poet who somehow manages to exude her life experience through her voice. On the page, though, they come off as flat. Some of the prose pieces (essays? prose poems?) that make this book a hybrid, show more signs of life, but only occasionally. I was rooting for something in this book to reach out and grab me, but it rarely happened.

The Light Between Oceans (Stedman)

This is a jewel of a novel. It does what many new novels have forgotten to do, or at least have forgotten to do first. It tells a story. And, impressively, since it’s 343 pages, every bit counts. The carefully constructed setting and the way that WW1 haunts the story all contribute to a story that’s in two parts. The first is the one that is advertised. A couple lives on Janus Rock. He is a lighthouse keeper. She is his wife. After three unsuccessful pregnancies, a baby washes up on shore, and they – she, actively and he, more but not completely passively, make a decision.

And you just know it’s going to unravel. Still, Stedman lays it delicately and carefully. She knows just how long to keep things going (deteriorating really) until, inevitably, things fall apart.

And the second act, if you will, of this book, is equally impressive. I will not offer any spoilers, but the ripple effects of the decision they made on the island ripples everywhere in this small community, most especially between the husband and wife. And every crack in the community that is trying desperately to hold itself together after WW1 becomes larger in a convincing fashion. Somehow, amidst all of this bleakness, Stedman finds hope.

A great book. And it’s her first novel!

City of Scoundrels: The 12 Days of Disaster that Gave Birth to Modern Chicago (Krist)

Having lived in Chicago for eight years, I’ll always have a soft spot for the place. Krist’s account of these 12 days does a great job of filling in a gap of my understanding of the city and its history. Perhaps because he focuses on a specific period of time and probably because he’s a better writer, I preferred this one to Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City. At times, Larson’s efforts to intertwine his two stories felt forced, contrived.

This is post-World War I Chicago. The soldiers are coming home, Big Bill Thompson is Mayor, Ring Lardner and Carl Sandburg are writing for local papers, and Ida B. Wells is active on the city’s south side. A series of events, both foreseeable and otherwise, throw the city into turmoil and its a test of all involved to see who can turn the city around. Krist recounts the conflicts between Thompson and, well, just about everyone else, with impressive and entertaining clarity – that out of these 12 days came modern Chicago would probably require a sequel to prove. The bridge opening that marks the end of Krist’s narrative is important, but not definitive.

A good read.

March (Lewis, Aydin, Powell)

This graphic novel, the first in a trilogy about Lewis’ life, is an excellent book. Though the framing devices (Obama’s first inauguration, etc.) come off as somewhat forced, the story itself is compelling. Everything from Lewis’ early passion for both chickens and sermonizing (combined in quite a funny way) to his participation in the sit-ins at the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement is rendered in clear prose and is accompanied by appropriately intense imagery. The images of Lewis looking out his bus window as it drove by a white school and his reaction when Martin Luther King tells him he’ll have to get his parents to sign a suit they want to bring in order to integrate Troy State are particularly memorable.

I like that the book does not shy away from potentially difficult moments. The image of Emmett Till suggests more than it shows, but there’s enough present for Lewis et all to make their point. I wondered about this for a while as the explicitness of the image Till’s mother showed the world was part of the reason his case had the impact it did. But this is not that. What’s here is enough.

I also admired how the book took up the differences between the generations involved in the Civil Rights Movement. I imagine it takes some guts to criticize Thurgood Marshall.

I would definitely use it in class, probably grades 6-12.

I look forward to the next two.

Ghana Must Go (Selasi)

To summarize the plot of this book in one sentence – a family gathers after the father dies – is to do it a serious injustice. First, there is the delicate and devastating account of the father’s seemingly unnecessary death. This is not a spoiler. The book begins with “Kweku dies barefoot on a Sunday before sunrise, his slippers by the doorway to the bedroom like dogs” (3). The story that accumulates after that – as the four children and their mother return to Ghana for the funeral and, not coincidentally, to be all together for the first time in a long while, is beautifully told. Selasi weaves the past and present together as everyone returns to Ghana – a place Selasi seems to cherish and regret (a notion captured so well when she calls the country “indifferent and blessed”) – and is forced to confront their past, present, future and each other. That Selasi is able to evoke at least 7 characters so carefully and so well is remarkable. My heart was with each one (though I must confess that Taiwo was my favorite) as he or she took center stage in this layered and thoughtful first novel.

It can be unfair to take excerpts out of context, but I want to share one example of Selasi’s remarkable writing (132):

[H]e listened intently, the azure eyes burning with knowing that nothing was being revealed, that the facts were a coat with the truth there beneath it, bare skin to be accessed at some other time.

One more (224):

Though he couldn’t quite bear it, to lose her, he thinks, with his hands on the ache and his eyes on the fan and his brother beside him as silent as threat is.