1919 (Dos Passos)

This one didn’t work for me as much as Part I, The 42nd Parallel, did. As much as I know these books aren’t really about characters, it helped in the first installment to be able to at least get caught up as much in the stories as in the news. Here, Dos Passos is much more focused on the news. The writing is more didactic and caustic. That’s not to say that there aren’t elegant passages. Consider (73-74) –

Bordeaux, the red Garonne, the pastelcolored streets of old tall mansardroofed houses, the sunlight and shadow so delicately blue and yellow, the names of the stations all out of Shakespeare, the yellowbacked novels on the bookstands, the bottles of wine in the buvettes, were nothing like he’d imagined.  All the way to Paris the faintly bluegreen fields were scattered scarlet with poppies like the first lines of a poem; the little train jogged along in dactyls; everything seemed to fall into rhyme.

What struck me in this middle installment was how much it resonated with today’s news, particularly the question of who profits from war vs. who fights in it. Dos Passos ends with a gorgeous tribute to the Unknown Soldier that celebrates the everyman and skewers Woodrow Wilson at the same time.

So I’ll finish this trilogy. . . in a little while.


Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison (Bernstein)

Bernstein does more than tip her hand by using the words ‘burning’ and ‘end’ in her title. Still, she works hard to frame the question properly. Can the juvenile justice system be reformed or is there something inherently wrong with it? Not surprisingly, she comes down on the side of it being fundamentally broken. But she builds her case slowly and thoroughly. (One reader I know put it down after 100 pages saying to herself, “I’ve got the point.” I understood the impulse.) The section on sexual abuse was especially difficult to force my way through. To her credit, Bernstein does investigate the possibilities for reform – Red Wing, Minnesota and The Missouri Model – are held up as signs of forward thinking. In the end, though, they are the exceptions that prove her rule. Rehabilitation, she argues, is based on relationships, and the juvenile justice system, by definition, has no interest in those.

In her final sections, Bernstein turns her fury on us, saying that “we can no longer indulge in the luxury of being scandalized” (305) and that even though the number of youths in the system is dropping, “[w]e should not bring out the champagne. . . for doing less of a terrible thing” (308). She even turns the word recidivism on its head by arguing (convincingly, I say, as a public school teacher) that there is so much invested in the status quo (financially, ideologically) that it is very difficult to reform. The resiliency that institutions show defy reform, for you cannot “build something effective on top of something rotten” (314).

At times, I longed for an opposing viewpoint – an interview with someone or research conducted saying that the system, in its current incarnation, is effective. Bernstein offers (and mocks) a few voices, but when it’s institutions like the Department of Justice saying that the system does not work, it’s hard to think otherwise.

Bernstein is not just a critic.  She offers support for a notion called “justice reinvestment,” first put forth by Eric Cadora and Susan Tucker at the Open Society Institute (http://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/publications/ideas-open-society-justice-reinvestment). But solutions are for another book. Bernstein just wants to burn down the house. Now.

The Cineaste (Jordan)

I first heard of this collection a few years ago when Garrison Keillor recommended it in an email from his excellent bookstore in St. Paul, Common Good Books. As a fan of both movies and poetry, I thought it sounded like an excellent concept. In the interim, I read Jordan’s M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A, and that only increased my sense of anticipation. And from the beautiful cover to the Table of Contents that reads like poetry itself to the final poem, this one was very much worth the wait.

The frame of this collection consists of poems written in response to movies that are Jordan’s favorites. Based on the notes at the back of the book, he seems to favor films with optimistic tone – ones that reward those who struggle and punishes “those who resist tempering.”

What moves this collection from the very good to the truly exceptional are the genre defying collection of poems in the middle that, together, serve as kind of a biography of Oscar Micheaux. The highlight of these neatly linked poems is, “Starting now, focused, I see through a lens.”

Other favorites include (and this collection will send you scurrying to your NetFlix search feature), “Rififi,” with its pointed insights about men and “The Cabinets of Dr. Caligari.” It starts this way:

Streets anesthetized in neon lights,

I walk through them in sleep,

deep in sleep, as an excuse

for acts I might only dream

of committing while wide awake.

“Ikiru” is also wonderful and wise:

A man must be willing to look like a child,

who has yet to believe in death,

to attain his desires.

“The Red Balloon” made me ‘see’ a familiar film in a new way. And “Oldboy” provides a perfect ending:

We live some memories,

and some memories are planted. There’s

only so much space for the truth

and the fabrications to spread out

in one’s mind. . .

(Note the perfect line breaks between lines 3 & 4 and 4 & 5.)

More from “Oldboy” –

                              don’t believe

there’s some joy in forgetting.

There’s no joy in the struggle to forget. . .

You remember when you were the man

who fit these clothes, but you’ve forgotten this


Now to find his other two collections, Quantum Lyrics and Rise and to wait for what comes next.



The Native Commissioner (Johnson)

A compelling book, both old and new at the same time. What happens to a man who tries to do his job honorably and decently when the country he seeks to serve is crumbling underneath his feet? What happens to this man who can never, literally or symbolically, call any place home? What happens to this same man when he realizes, tries to ignore and then to fight the creeping awareness that his life has, at least in one major way, been in vain?

Johnson’s writing is wonderful. He depicts a South Africa both powerful and fragile, both beautiful and increasingly ugly. His style – which one might call modern (different points of view, different genres, etc.) – serves his story well.

What, then, happens to the son of such a man, the one who has finally decided to confront the proverbial box in his basement, the one that contains his father’s story and therefore his? Is the story he constructs True or true? Does it, in the end, even matter? We make our stories. We, like the protagonist, have our own boxes.

A powerful, memorable work.

Mindfulness for Beginners: Reclaiming the Present Moment – and Your Life (Kabat-Zinn)

I admit to catching the wave a bit in terms of mindfulness. I’m eager to explore more of the mindfulness for teachers and for classrooms work. I enjoyed this book. Each section is bite-sized and thoughtful. I tried to read one each morning as a way to enter my day at school and they were helpful. .  when I could remember them.

And I will say that if you are skeptical about such things, the writing here is pretty straightforward and not too “out there.”

Going Public: An Organizer’s Guide to Citizen Action (Gecan)

Gecan takes us through the principles and practices necessary to make change on a local level. Those of us watching or even participating in the reaction to the recent stretch of police killings (Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice – the list, unfortunately, could go on), there is much to learn.

I was interested in the way Gecan described his insights into power – who has it, how it manifests itself, and how to develop it. I was also impressed, even amazed with his patience and persistence with what he calls “the relational culture.” I was struck by the connection he made between the robber barons of yesteryear and, though he wrote too early (1992) to use this term, the 1% of today. And I wholeheartedly agree with his call that some things (public schools?) must be disorganized before they can be organized again.

As a writer, Gecan is fairly, well, straightforward. There are moments of eloquence. In the middle of the narration of one event, he describes the crowd (143):

If all God’s children aren’t here tonight, most of them are represented, heads bowed in prayer. . . Scanning the crows is like looking at an exposed side of a mountain. There, in the rock face, the layers of sediment tell the story of the earth – a geological petition with the signatures of many millennia.

Otherwise, Gecan’s wisest writing move is a structural one. He provides an introduction to a strategy, or habit, and then provides evidence of it in action.

A thought provoking book.

You Must Remember This (Bazzett)

Each night, before I read my daily allotment of 2-3 poems (one must not rush poetry, especially Bazzett’s), I would study the cover of the book, complete with the outstanding cover photograph courtesy of Alec Soth (http://alecsoth.com/photography/), and consider the title. I would nod at the Casablanca allusion, but spend more time trying to think about how to say the title. Eventually, I decided that there should be a gentle emphasis on the word ‘remember’ as the idea of memory, especially as it relates to time, seems to be on Bazzett’s mind, particularly in the first third of this excellent collection.

For example, in the poem “Memory,” Bazzett writes:

Now that I am a man,

I can clearly recall

how snow sifted sideways

through the air. . .

(Here and elsewhere, Bazzet is the master of the line break.)

In “Clockwatcher,”

                             there before

you know it when a pressing

darkness stained with light

and you wish you’d taken

that handful of crumbling

white pills before it came.

One more, from “The Difficulty of Holding Time” (notice even the titles),

The silliness of clocks and watches,

weather vanes with no wind, spinning

to correlate a thing they don’t measure

but suggest.

Okay, another (“Some Party”):

Then someone said, Tomorrow is an animal

that can be tracked but never captured.

From there (and I’m fully aware that I might be constructing an artificial frame), Bazzett seems to turn his attention to quiet, even silence. There are poems called, “from a Natural History of Silence” and “Unspoken.” These two motifs merged (at least in my mind) in the poem, “What Might” (a title, like the title of the collection, that merits re-reading), as the persona seems to be considering, if not confronting, mortality.

There are moments of greatness throughout (the ending of “Binary” – the world / is not in love with certainty and the beginning of “Cyclops”  – The story is such a story. . .). There are too many to tell. Overall, this collection rings absolutely True. Even the poems that a cursory reading might suggest should be dismissed as simply clever merit a more careful re-reading. There is Truth (to borrow Bazzett’s use of capitalization) that will echo long after you finish this award-winning collection (http://milkweed.org/shop/product/358/you-must-remember-this/).

[Note: Bazzett is a former colleague and, I flatter myself, a friend.]