Macnolia (Jordan)

This is an amazing collection. The tone is set with the cover, a cover that features a young African-American face looking (staring?) right at the reader. The title of the collection is also defined: “A Negro who spells and reads as well as [if not better than] any white.”

In this way, Jordan sets his almost documentarian tone for his based on a true story coherent collection of poems about a young African-American Ohio girl, Macnolia Cox, who made it to the national spelling bee competition only, it is strongly suggested, to be prevented from winning by Southern judges who assigned her a word not on the list. That word? Nemesis. You can’t make this stuff up.

And it is words (Life only seems clear / Through the words I trade / With others or Sometimes you learn words / By living them and sometimes / Words learn you // By defining who you are) and spelling and definitions that make up the meat of this superb collection. I don’t have a great deal of experience with poetry, but I think Jordan has invented a kind of poem – the definition poem. His, for lack of a better term, Definition poems are stunning. And what’s even more impressive is that he’s written them about seemingly ordinary words, like ‘to’ and ‘from.’

But others are great here as well. “In Service” caused me to write, “Wow.” “Elegy to My Son” brought tears to my eyes. Here is the poem, “from” –

The Burgess Boys (Strout)

The school year has started, so the reading pace has slowed down. As a fan of Olive Kitteridge, I was worried about whether this book would match up. In the end, I think it’s quite good, though perhaps not as amazing as OK.

It’s interesting how the headline here is not the story. The catalyst (in the past) is that a boy, the nephew of the Burgess Boys, has, for no clear reason, rolled a pig’s head into a mosque. The catalyst (in the past) is an accident that killed the boys’ father.

What Strout really seems interested in here is the notion of family – families that are together and families that are apart. The incident with the pig’s head (nicely underplayed) stirs things up in Shirley Falls, Maine, the hometown that the two boys (though not their sister, the mother of the boy) have left behind for New York.

Strout does well to get into the heads of so many characters, particularly Bob Burgess. He feels so familiar. She is great at the careful, self-aware detail. She uses simple language that becomes so powerful because of her directness. She’s also great at the disorientation involved in experiencing a change of place.

She may have been a bit more ambitious than the 320 pages allowed, but no harm is done. There’s enough in each perspective to indicate that there are many stories here.

A Search Past Silence: The Literacy of Young Black Men (Kirkland)

I heard Kirkland and some of his students present at the NCTE conference in Boston in 2013. I was intrigued and challenged by what they had to say, so I picked up his book. It took me a while to get to it, but I’m glad I did.

After two unsatisfactory tries, Kirkwood settled on a format for his book. He follows the lives of 6 young men of color and investigates their literacies. By using a combination of anecdotes and research, Kirkwood makes his writing accessible to those of us far removed from graduate school. Though his prose can get more than a bit purple at times, it’s worth wading through those overly poetic passages to read his analysis.

He certainly expanded my notion of literacy. I only wanted more. How can teachers, white teachers, reconcile his persuasive argument about literacy with the requirements of the common core and standardized testing?

The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945 (Atkinson)

The third volume of Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy ( started slowly. I think because I know much of the story from reading Ambrose’s works, I was more bothered by Atkinson’s armchair hindsight. He continues to make Churchill seem ridiculous and Montgomery also is presented as cartoonish. Atkinson saves his worst, though, for De Gaulle. He paints him as a selfish opportunist, more interested in appearance than anything else.

As I moved through the book and the Allies moved through Europe, I became more engaged. Given today’s headlines about civilian casualties in the Middle East, I was struck by just how many Europeans were caught in the crossfire. What are our expectations for war? Are they reasonable?

I knew little of the Battle of the Bulge, and Atkinson explained it well. And the final steps toward victory are rendered remarkably well here. As in the first two volumes, Atkinson has an impressive ability to choose a telling detail. I also thought his presentation of German leaders was more balanced than in the first two volumes.

The passages that describe the liberation of various concentration camps are necessarily grim. Atkinson’s epilogue sings; tears came to my eyes. But I wondered whether it would have been useful to integrate more of that positive lyricism throughout. Many things, Atkinson makes clear, were done wrong during the war – equipment failures, leadership failures, etc. – but many things were done right. Atkinson would have done well to comment on those on a more consistent basis.

Atkinson’s implicit thesis remains present in this volume. Though there were many great leaders and many great decisions, it was the ordinary man, the soldier, the engineer, that was the hero. We get excerpts from letters and interviews as well as descriptions of battles that make this argument well.

Rick Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy is a stunning accomplishment. I wonder what he’ll tackle next.

The Sound of Things Falling (Vasquez)

The summer before my freshman year of college, I got a mailing indicating that my roommate was going to be from Bogota, Columbia. I only knew Bogota from the news, and the news was of the drug wars there. My roommate proved to have a tremendous sense of humor. He wrote me a great letter, acknowledging all of the Columbian stereotypes, and then explaining that none of them described him.

Vasquez is just a bit younger than us. He lived through what I only read a bit about in the headlines. And he’s written here about Antonio who indirectly becomes entangled in those headlines. What his story made me realize is that there were people behind those headlines, not only those involved, but those they left behind. And when Antonio befriends one man involved, he crosses a line that marks him; it’s a mark he cannot shake. It’s also a mark that he wants desperately to understand.

Vasquez’s writing is lyrical and powerful. The juxtaposition of Silva’s “Nocturne” ( and a tape we later get to hear for ourselves is stunning. With just a few absolutely necessary characters, Vasquez creates a vivid portrayal of the insiders and outsiders, of Columbians and Americans, of the innocent and the innocents, and of the personal and political. There are passages that remind me of Saramago.

Vasquez is exploring here. What is the purpose of memory? For an individual? For a city? And the structure of this novel supports these questions about memory. This story is not so much told as woven. And it’s woven extremely well.

What is Judaism? An Interpretation for the Present Age (Fackenheim)

That the main title of this book is a question is absolutely appropriate. Fackenheim asks a lot of questions – ones that made me smack my forehead and wonder why I hadn’t thought of them, ones that rattled the very foundations of my beliefs. And he went some ways in the direction of responding to them in a thoughtful and generally accessible way.

First, he establishes the groundwork for asking these questions, saying that, “Judaism has been a questioning faith ever since Abraham called God to account in the matter of Sodom and Gomorrah” (17) and reminds us, therefore, that “doubt has a legitimate place” (23).

He wonders why modern science has overtaken belief. Why do we need proof of G-d’s existence?

He also endorses Heschel’s stunning proclamation that “Pluralism is the will of God” (29). As easy as it might seem to cheer, that statement, Fackenheim reminds us, has implications for a Jewish faith that has as part of its very core, the notion that they, we, are the chosen people. Is it time to abandon that claim? For if we are chosen, then how can we support pluralism?

He writes that “every Jew seeking to come to grips with his religious situation must come to confront the fact of the State of Israel. He must do so for better or for worse” (32). As someone who is seeking to come to grips with his religious situation, current events this week have certainly forced me to consider the better and worse of Israel.

For Fackenheim, himself a Holocaust survivor, the State of Israel and the Holocaust are the starting points for any understanding of modern Judaism. They have created what he calls a “fidelity” to Judaism, and I think he’s right on this point for “[w]ithout fidelity [the Jews] would long have vanished from the earth” (46). We must, Fackenheim asserts, “hold ourself open to faith” (91). A simple and powerful statement; a hard thing to do for those of us subsumed by the modern view of things.

He asks, among other things, who is a Jew? Who is a Jew today? What is Jewish? (a “religious civilization”?). How have the Jews survived? They, we (why are the pronouns so hard?) have survived because of yeshivah, “a turning and returning in which the old is renewed” (58). “[T]he present must reach out to the past” (99, emphasis mine). The questions continue: “Does not intellectual integrity require us to view the world as closed to incursions of divinity in it?” (90). Why was Israel chosen? Do we need to abandon that part of our identity? (Fackenheim thinks so.) “How can a law or commandment that is divine be observed by such as himself, who are merely human?” (131). “[W]hat is a person without a past?” (144). “[W]ho is this God before Whom we stand?” (176). “How could Abraham obey?” is a great question, one that I wonder about even more now that I’m a parent. “If indeed there is a world to come, why did there have to be this world with its unspeakable agonies?” (274).

This is not an easy book. Some of the arguments and references are, at least for me, obscure. Fackenheim does have a way with a meaningful anecdote. I found some new heroes, like Gustav Schroeder, the Captain of the St. Louis, a German passenger ship that sailed for Cuba in 1939 with approximately 900 Jewish refugees fleeing to try to save their lives. When the ship was denied entry to Cuba and the United States, Schroeder had to turn back to Germany. He ordered the ship to proceed as slowly as possible to give those advocating for his passengers as much time as possible to try to find a place that would take in his passengers. Though this effort was in vain, Schroeder was definitely one of the 36 righteous men. I should know his name.

The Goldfinch (Tartt)

After reading any number of enthusiastic reviews of this book, I decided that I would first give The Secret History a try. I thought it was decent story about, to borrow Tartt’s line from her most recent book, “privilege gone to seed.” But it didn’t convince me to buy The Goldfinchin hardback; only friends and former colleagues could do that.

Now that I’ve finished it, I will offer this. If it is not the worst book I’ve ever read, it’s definitely the most overrated.

It is not a spoiler to reveal that our protagonist, Theo, survives an explosion in a New York museum and walks out with a painting. Here is where the implausible pieces begin (and they never end). Perhaps because I already knew about the explosion, I accepted that , but I found it hard to believe anything after that, from how he got out of the museum with the painting to everything that takes him Las Vegas back to New York and to Amsterdam.

Some of the problem stems from how Tartt moves the plot along. She seems to have two moves:

1) the death of a character or characters

2) absolute coincidence

I was also perplexed by Tartt’s apparent lack of control over point of view. It is often difficult to tell whether Theo is in the moment or reflecting on it. Tartt’s last minute, half-hearted explanation for why Theo is telling his story just doesn’t ring true. Instead, it seems like she’s trying to cover a gap she’s only realized after over 700 pages.

Tartt does little to integrate the tremendous amount of research she did for the book. There are lengthy treatises on art, antiques, and drugs. Sometimes, the details create credibility. More often, though, they are just dull.

Her writing can often be lyrical and purposeful. The ending made me wonder why she hadn’t infused those kinds of sentences throughout the book. Earlier, though, I had to re-read sentences to get the balance right, to find the subject, to wish that the unnecessary word (‘though’ and ‘still’ are repeat offenders) had been omitted.

Though I am sure she knows New York better than me, I don’t understand why the default here is that the characters are all white. The only person of color I remember is a man shouting into the air. Hispanic characters? Doormen. Twice, Theo describes things as “gay.” Really? Is this the teen Theo or the reflective one? Either one seems like he’d know better.

And why does Tartt flirt with introducing a homosexual motif throughout the novel? She’s coy about it and, as with so much else, erratic. Why is it even there?

Once, when he was taking a shot at Stanley Kubrick (I believe), Woody Allen dismissed the notion that taking a long time to make a movie necessarily made it – or its maker – great. Have we done that with Tartt? She’s notorious for the time between her novels. Are we therefore assuming that they don’t need editing (this one just goes on and on and on) and that we should just be so happy that they arrived?