A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (Marra)

Allow me to join the crowd. What a magnificent novel. Oddly, I wanted to resist its pull. I was concerned that it was gaining acclaim simply because it was the first novel set in Chechnya (at least that I know of) and was earning praise because of its “firstness” rather than its quality.

I held out for about 70. And then came the description of Akhmed’s first amputation, a masterpiece of prose and central to what was quickly becoming an amazingly well-constructed and delicate story that moves back and forth between two wars. “Delicate” is an odd word, I know, considering the time and place of this story, but I think it’s right. Marra stitches the story together carefully, precariously – once he even uses dental floss. (I will never forget this image.)

Though the novel is a kind of epic, the characters are few, and this allows Marra to develop them well. These are people caught up in amazing circumstances. Our protagonists are deeply flawed, and the antagonists are incredibly human. There is humor and hope. The hope has its origins in two places – in stories and in art. The art that Akhmed creates and the mural that Natasha creates (with help from the two nurses who are sisters).

An absolute masterpiece.


Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me, and Other Poems (Zaqtan, trans. by Fady Joudah)

It can be hard to read a whole poetry collection and “Best of” collections are challenging as well. Absent a theme, as in Blake’s Songs of Innocence, Songs of Experience, what makes a poetry book into a book? Sometimes, I just dip in and out of several collections at the same time, but I wonder if that’s giving those authors a fair shake.

It’s odd but predictable, I suppose, that Zaqtan is lauded as a Palestinian poet who does not choose to write – at least explicitly – about Palestinian politics. Naomi Shihab Nye gets some of the same ‘criticism’ too. Do certain kinds of authors have an obligation to address particular topics?

To the poetry. . .

Zaqtan kept me off balance. He seemed to like to set up a rhythm only to disrupt, often in just a mild way – as though to suggest that you might not have heard the needle skip.

My favorites include “Salty Hills” –

“[W]e don’t concern the birds.”


“We are many like affliction / few like content / that’s how we became the soil of the story / and its mud.”


“Beirut, August 1982” –

“O what the songs didn’t tell us!”


“The Orchard’s Song” –

“I wish you’d turn serene.”

“Alone and the River Before Me” is a masterpiece. . .

“I have a suspicious heart, brother, / and a blind statue, / and the news that amateur refugees brought from Baghdad stunned me, / there’s a lot they haven’t seen yet / they were crossing the bridge by chance / Intentions are in the ports / befuddled as their owners left them, / incomplete as the murdered left them. . .


I will spend a lot of time thinking about the phrase “amateur refugees.” In the same poem, there are “women undressing on the edge of an abyss to distract death / from their children.” Perfect line break. And. . .

“like textile workers we hold threads and spin them to weave memories / that pant behind us and follow our steps like bewildered dogs.”


“I have a suspicious heart, brother / and my stance is whole.”


“[I]n sleep I see the invisible.”


It’s hard to write about poetry, too.

Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? (Sandel)

I’ve always been curious about this book and its author, and it just seemed right to buy it on while I was on his campus (Harvard) recently. Though the mental muscles I developed in college in order to read philosophy have atrophied quite a bit, I was still able to keep up with much of this and managed to squelch an impulse to go buy some Kant.

Sandel is an amazingly careful thinker and writer (and, I suspect, teacher). For the most part, he moves fluidly between the abstract and concrete (sometimes serious, sometimes silly) in order to explore notions of justice. I admit, I got a little lost in the discussions about John Rawls, but that may be because I’d never heard of him prior to this.

It took a while, but eventually, I had to get out my pencil and start arguing with and annotating the text. I even sent Sandel an email. (I’ll add it to this post if he replies; apparently, he’s on sabbatical.) All that’s to say that I was definitely engaged and will find to use some of this book in the class. The examples about the Bulger Brothers and the Unabomber and his brother (and the notion of loyalty) seem to be a perfect connection with “Antigone.”

A few favorite moments:

“A more robust engagement with our moral disagreements could provide a stronger, not a weaker, basis for mutual respect” (268).


“[I]nequality can be corrosive to civic virtue” (267).


“Too great a gap between rich and poor undermines the solidarity that democratic citizenship requires” (266).


“[W]e need a public debate about the moral limits of markets” (265).


Sandel quotes from RFK (262-263):

[T]he Gross National Product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.


What if he hadn’t been shot?

Sandel made me think in new ways about old topics, like abortion. It’s not that he swayed me to change my mind, only that he prompted me how to make my arguments better. He made me re-think the role of religion in public life. He made me curious about the work of Alisdair MacIntyre.

More Sandel –

“Fundamentalists rush in where liberals fear to tread” (243).

“To have character is to live in recognition of one’s (sometime conflicting) encumbrances” (237).

“A politics of moral engagement is not only a more inspiring ideal than a politics of avoidance. It is also a more promising basis for a just society” (269).


Challenging and inspiring.

A Judgement in Stone (Rendell)

Mysteries get a bad rap, especially when it comes to the classroom. Why not teach them?

1. People, including those we call students, actually read them. They enjoy them. What would be so wrong with using books students enjoy? It’s time to get over the snobbery. (And yes, those who know me know I’ve been guilty of this elitism in the past.) Though I don’t love the genre, the same argument applies to sci-fi / fantasy as well.

2. Mysteries are perfect for teaching annotations and story structure. Simply put, have students annotate the clues. The basic question in terms of story structure is – how does the author create the tension and then relieve it?

To be fair, Rendell takes an unusual step. Right from the start, we know exactly who the killers are. But that doesn’t minimize the impact of this powerful novel. There is, as Rendell says early on, “more to it” (2). Thus, we have a flashback and, ultimately, a frame story. The question here is not who did the killing, but why. As in Doris Lessing’s creepy and outstanding The Fifth Child, what Rendell is really asking is(and it seems to be something of a British preoccupation – see Frankenstein, Macbeth, Othello, The Fifth Child, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, etc.)  – what does it take for us to lose our humanity? Related: To what extent is the individual responsible (sub-question: nature vs. nurture)? To what extent is society responsible?

Eunice Parchman, the deliberately and awfully named protagonist of Rendell’s perfectly titled novel has crossed over the line. She is, as Shakespeare’s Scottish King puts it “In blood / stepped in so far that, should [she] wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o’er” (III.4.171-173). Unlike Macbeth, Eunice neither recognizes this nor cares. For reasons Rendell makes clear early on – no, I’m going to tell you because Rendell does in the first pages, indeed the first sentence – “Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write” (1). Thus, in Rendell’s view, she lacks the capacity to recognize her flaws.

In contrast, one member of the higher class (higher than Eunice, not necessarily upper), a member of the Coverdale clan is, if you will, hyper-literate. But as much as he reads, he has no idea how to be in the world either.

Eunice does not act alone. Her partner-in-crime (really) has her own backstory. Whatever you think of either of them as human beings, Rendell crafts her novel so that you can not leave the questions I mentioned above unexamined.

A carefully crafted and powerful book.

The Breaks (Price)

I love Richard Price’s writing. He has a language and a rhythm all his own. But this novel, an early one (1983), is heavy on style and low on substance. The tale meanders. Price’s observations (through the narration of his protagonist, Peter Keller) are already razor sharp, but he’s on overdrive, and 469 pages of this was tough at times. It’s sometimes fun to read an author’s work out of order. And this is the case with Price. Since I know his more recent stuff, I can see him trying out things that will show up later in his more polished and effective work. Lush Life, for example, is stunning. So I think I have a few old ones to get to, but I’d really like a new one soon.

My Picador edition has a great cover photograph courtesy of Stephen Shames. It fits the book perfectly.


Americanah (Adichie)

(I’m going to pause here and enjoy the idea that I’m blogging about a book whose protagonist is a blogger. Can you say “meta”?)

Americanah is, no doubt, a masterpiece. It recently won the National Book Critics Circle award and that honor, and many other accolades, are well-deserved. In fact, it’s so good, I’m already worried about Adichie’s next novel. How will she avoid the headline – Not as good as Americanah?

Adichie’s prose – from the title, with its Rockwellian echoes and particularly Nigerian usage, to the final words – is pitch perfect. Her sentences are elegant and precise. She moves across time and space and character with unlatched fluidity. This is the modern Nigerian novel. One wonders if it will ever replace the inevitable and great Things Fall Apart in the classroom (or, better yet, be read in conjunction with it).

Still, a few things nagged at me while I read it. First, the protagonist, Ifemelu has welcome insecurities about relationships, but when it comes to race, she’s sharp and confident. I just didn’t buy the consistent certainty. There was no self-doubt, no potential missteps. This leads to my second concern.

In interviews and her wonderful TED talk (www.ted.com/speakers/chimamanda_ngozi_adichie – which many teachers show and few actually act on), Adichie positions herself and is being positioned by others as the moral authority on race. While I don’t find myself disagreeing with Adichie’s or Ifemelu’s insights, their surety is, I think, potentially problematic.

Detroit: An American Autopsy (LeDuff)

I married into Detroit. On my first tour of downtown, it seemed like tumbleweed took over downtown around 9pm. Then the pizza $ seemed to infuse downtown with some kind of life. The rest is very public history. And LeDuff attacks it, both large and small, in his account of returning to the city to work as a journalist for the Detroit News. Once you get past the tentatively offered thesis (as Detroit goes, so goes the country – debatable, but certainly not demonstrated here) and get into LeDuff’s stories (including that of his own history – recent and long past – with the city), the power of the story emerges. And the story is itself a good reminder of why we still need LeDuff’s brand of journalism, written by people unafraid to get into the mix. If some of the details of his stories get a little muddled, don’t stress it. Focus on the forest. The Devil (‘s Night) here is in details like a stolen screen door. LeDuff tells stories here that need telling. Will Detroit come out the other side of all of this? There are some glimmers of hope (both here and in my own personal experience). I certainly hope so.