The Barnum Museum (Millhauser)

I don’t know why Millhauser doesn’t get more attention. He’s a remarkable writer, and this collection of short stories is still more proof. Though many of the pieces seem like writing exercises – What was Alice thinking as she fell down the rabbit hole? – they are generally successful. The first, “A Game of Clue,” is an absolute masterpiece. “The Sepia Postcard” is haunting, and “Rain” is spot on. Both “The Invention of Robert Herendeen” and “Eisenheim the Illusionist” (the latter, the source for the movie The Illusionist) really made me think that this is a collection of stories about writing, about creativity. Herendeen is no Victor Frankenstein; he is, instead, a writer. So is Eisenheim.

Millhauser, with what I’m now beginning to see as his trademarks of attention to architecture and use of lists, deserves more acclaim. These are imaginative and vivid stories that will stay with me for a long, long time.


An Event in Autumn (Mankell)

There’s a reason this book – available for the first time in the U.S. – seems more like a sketch of a book than an actual book. Mankell explains in his notes that he was asked to write a story for a giveaway for those who purchased a crime novel in a particular month in Holland. Still, even Mankell’s sketches make for compelling reading. Both the author and his character have aging and death on their minds (it is their autumn, I think), and the result is a sad story of the way both a people and a place change. Mankell is, reliably, interested in the way crime has changed because the world has changed.

As a bonus, Mankell has written a brief, insightful essay on the origins and evolution of his Wallender novels. That itself makes this book worth the read.

The Infatuations (Marias)

This one will be hard to describe. Something major happens, but not a lot actually happens. Much of this book is internal. Motives are always a question and the details – and the possibilities they present – matter a great deal. And Marias, writing in sentences reminiscent of Saramago (long and therefore sometimes hard to track, though with much less dialogue), wants us to consider stories and memories and truth and how they intersect and avoid each other. He’s also given us a narrator who is compelling and who most definitely has a conscience; what’s intriguing here is how she chooses to act in response to it. Throw in some Balzac, Dumas, and Shakespeare (his nuanced reading of “She should have died hereafter” is thorough and provocative), and you’ve got one of the finest, most delicately tense, language-rich novels I’ve ever read. Marias is a writer to savor. I’m not going to rush to my next one, but there will most definitely be a next one. (In the mean time, I would like to ask him a question about this one. There was one moment, a connection, left unexplored, and I want to know more about it and whether that choice was deliberate.)

The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children (Ladson-Billings)

I’ve had this book on my shelf for a while. I think I avoided it for a time because Ladson-Billings studied elementary school children (not my area). Then, for a time, I wasn’t teaching (m)any African American children. A recommendation from my current principal caused me to pull it off of my shelf.

What a remarkable and inspiring book. Though Ladson-Billings is not (at least not here) a gifted stylist (the prose can sometimes be overly academic and wooden), in the end, the clarity of her ideas about “culturally relevant teaching” win the day. She not only describes what it is but offers both general guidelines and specific examples of how it is to be achieved. I was grateful for deliberate move to avoid celebrating the cult of personality; instead, she drew from her observations the guidelines or principles she thinks those of us who teach African American children (L-B omits the hyphen; so will I) need to embrace.

This book feels like a beginning. As a result of reading it, there is much I want to explore, notably the notion of how oratory and storytelling can be used with African American students.

L-B’s original group of Dreamkeepers were all women, an issue that I think merits more attention than she gives it (which is hardly any). Other than that minor quibble, I highly recommend this book. I think it belongs on the shelves of everyone who teaches, and everyone who teaches teachers.

Imperial (Bilgere)

Having heard that Bilgere is one of the best poets working in Cleveland, I was excited about this collection. Unfortunately, I found the tone of the pieces to be repetitive, and that tone comes across as smug cleverness. ┬áThere are a few tentative openings (often about the persona’s father) into what could have been interesting poems but they are throwaway moments here. Bilgere tries for this ordinary man voice which is quite at odds with some of the privileged experiences he describes. In both “Norwood” and “Eighty Yards,” I was troubled by his descriptions of African-American characters.

An opposing point of view (one of many):

The Greeks Have a Word for It (Unsworth)

I turn to Unsworth like I (far too often) turn to comfort food. I can rely on him to depict both time and place in a way that simply transports me. Though Morality Play and Sacred Hunger will always be tough to beat, this one is another reminder of just how great a writer he was – one of the most underrated, I think.

This one is less specific about time than most, but his rendering of the place – Athens – is exquisite. Two men get off a boat in Athens. Both are there for very different reasons, and there is every indication that they will cross paths in the city. And they do – periodic and awkward encounters – as each travels his own, almost desperate path. And so it is that in the end, when they cross paths one more time, we are fully ready to believe that this last meeting would happen in this way and that each man (and a woman who one has picked up along the way) gets what s/he deserves. Unsworth, in just under 200 pages, wisely keeps to a small cast of characters. Each one is fully realized; each one gets his or her due. Every minor character is purposeful. Every moment is needed.

The star of the story is definitely Athens, though, in a time unknown (mid 20th century, some quick research suggests) just after the Greek Civil War, a piece that’s central to the fate of one of the men.

Not the first Unsworth I’d recommend, but definitely one worth reading.

The Care & Keeping of You: The Body Book for Younger Girls (Schaefer)

When our daughter received her first American Girl as a gift, I took a deep breath and accepted it. When she started asking for books published by American Girl, I got a bit nervous. So rather than judge them based on who was publishing them, I decided to read one for myself. And. . . I was impressed. This book, written by Valorie Lee Schaefer with help from Cara Natterson, MD (and illustrated by Josee Masse) is quite good. It’s straightforward, easy to read, and specific. And, I admit, I learned a thing or two. It includes real letters and helpful responses to them. I am glad to know it’s in our daughter’s library.

My one objection is with the illustrations. Though Masse is careful to depict girls from many cultures, one wonders why, in a book that addresses issues about body shape and different rates of development, all of the girls are skinny.