A Marker to Measure Drift (Maksik)

Jacqueline has gotten away – at least geographically. Having escaped Liberia, she wanders a Greek island trying to find a place, though she wonders if there is a permanent place for her. She must focus on food, water, shelter. This focus allows her to keep story and memory at bay, for a while. But story and memory creep into her thoughts and intrude on and then invade the story. And then they turn out to be just as urgent as food, water and shelter. The voice of Jacqueline’s mother guides her in this new life until she is able to find someone, a kind waitress, who will listen to her story, who knows that Jacqueline has a story that must be told out loud.

Maksik’s prose is pitch perfect. He creates tension in Jacqueline’s every step, from offering a massage to earn money, to eating a sandwich, to trying to deal with someone who is trying to be kind to her. It takes until she is at a kind of marker at the end of the world until she can begin to find her way back to herself. Jacqueline is hungry, for food, for companionship, for sanity, for redemption. The problem and blessing is that she survived, was allowed to survive, and was told to tell her story.

Powerful, important and necessary.


brown girl dreaming (Woodson)

This memoir in verse, and the fact that it’s written with an eye on and ear for Woodson’s usual YA audience, is just remarkable. She evokes characters and places with subtle and sparse strokes. Her family members, particularly her Grandfather and Mother, come to life. So does Greenville, South Carolina.

Woodson subscribes to the less is more approach as she sees herself, her family, her surroundings, and her world changing. Her grandfather’s cough, her first notebook, and a neighbor, Miss Bell, who feeds protestors as they plan their actions are all evoked in such a vivid fashion. I could see things through Woodson’s eyes.

Given that she’s a writer, it’s not surprising that words and her experiences with them provide a strand throughout the book – from the words she couldn’t say at home to the words she had trouble capturing on paper (both as a writer and a reader) to the stories she heard and told, it is easy to see how Woodson became such a magician with words. If she is overly fond of the separate one-line ending to a number of poems, that’s forgivable. I would like to have seen more effort to link them – to allow one to flow into the next.

Woodson provides neat (sort of) summaries in her last few poems. Angela Davis and the Black Panthers have entered her consciousness. Her world is filled with twos, twos she enumerates in “what i believe.” Despite and because of this, she has created her own very unique story. I hope she plans to write more.


The Good Lord Bird (McBride)

At first, I was reluctant to pick up this book. Though The Color of Water was useful, it was too long and somewhat thin. Then I delayed because I’m generally not fond of fictional lives of historical characters. I don’t want such things to sway what I know of the truth. But then it went ahead and won the National Book Award. So I picked it up.

For the first part of it, I was pleasantly surprised. The book was. . . funny. Then there was a remarkably poignant couple of scenes involving Sibonia. And then. . . the book went completely off the rails.

The chapter in which the fictionalized John Brown takes Onion (our plucky, overly wise protagonist) to see Frederick Douglass is painfully bad. It just made me angry. Between that scene and another involving Douglass, McBride seems intent on mocking the man. Fine. Pretty much all of our heroes need to be taken down a notch or three, but why this one? And why this way?

Finally, McBride realizes that he needs to get to the moment of truth – the raid of Harper’s Ferry. This is where our narrator is especially too insightful and too involved. At this point, I just wanted the book to end.

As with water in The Color of Water, McBride takes one symbol here, the one that gives the book its title, and asks it to carry so much weight that he renders it meaningless.

Super Boys (Ricca)

This book, subtitled, The Amazing Adventures of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster – The Creators of SUPERMAN, recounts the origin of the character and lives of its two co-creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, as they grow up, develop (and steal?) their ideas and then struggle for a long time to gain control of them. The story of the friendship is wonderful as is the story of creativity. Ricca comes off as a fan who knows his comics.

When he tries to turn psychologist, he spends too much time on what for him is shaky ground. Granted, he makes plausible the argument of how autobiography informed the development of their most famous character,, but he belabors the point in a way that makes it clear he’s out of his depth. I wished for more of the history and how current events influenced the characters and stories.

The deterioration of the friendship of the two men as well as the ongoing lawsuits are treated with less clarity.

In many ways, this ends up coming off as an American story – two boyhood friends are so eager to be successful that they allow themselves to be taken advantage of and spend their lives – finally with some moderate success – trying to regain what they see as theirs (money, yes, but also recognition). As with so many other stories, now their descendants have been drawn into the muck. It is also an American story because it matches the boys from Cleveland against the corporate offices of New York, creativity and passion vs. business acumen and ruthlessness (guess who wins that last battle).

An entertaining and quick read. Now Cleveland should do its part to honor Siegel and Shuster. Some are trying –


Citizen: An American Lyric (Rankine)

I’d read plenty about the currency of Rankine’s writing. Everything from the cover to the last poem suggests urgency. I’d read about how Rankine’s use of the second person works as advertised. I was brought into the challenging prose. All along, though, I wondered. Is it art? Is it poetry?

Short answer: Absolutely.

Rankine has a way of repeating words that allows her to explore fully the nuances of their meaning. She also summons images, often the small moments (sometimes the microaggressions), in a way that allows us to feel the largely unpleasant experience (The world is wrong. You can’t put the past behind you. It’s / buried in you; it’s turned your flesh into its own cupboard.)The prose form (can anyone define this?) suits her. Her accounts are meant to be newscasts of sorts. Breaking news. Complete, quite often, with pictures.

Read, re-read, and share.


The Bully Pulpit (Goodwin)

This book, subtitled Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism, seemed, with its 750 pages, to be quite imposing. And it does start slowly. Goodwin depicts the rise of Roosevelt and Taft and the development of their relationship. Interesting, but rather familiar and formulaic stuff. It is only with the introduction of S.S. McClure, his magazine, and the amazing writers he gathered (Ida Tarbell, Ray Baker, Lincoln Steffens and William Allen White) that the book seems to pick up any kind of steam. These writers, soon to become known as muckrakers, are given remarkable amounts of funding, latitude and access, as they report – in long form and often serialized pieces – on the issues of the day.

Even with the dramatic shift in their relationship (and the 750 pages), Goodwin’s portraits of the two presidents seem stagnant. Roosevelt is energetic, impulsive, popular and, especially as time goes by, too egotistical. Ever the able servant, Taft is a tentative leader, too much the nice guy to use the media and trumpet himself the way Roosevelt does. Even given the opportunity to insert her commentary into the parallels between the days of Roosevelt and our own (the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few), Goodwin remains remarkably detached. Perhaps I’m romanticizing Goodwin’s A Team of Rivals, but there at least seemed to be an argument in that book (and one that I wish more leaders would attend to) that inviting dissenting opinions was, at least in part, responsible for Lincoln’s success.

As I mentioned, Goodwin does have some energy for McClure, Tarbell et al. There seems to be a longing for the day when journalists could and were allowed to do serious and important work and that their work had a genuine impact on the work of the government. But perhaps I’m reaching. This section may have been of the most interest to me because it was new to me.

Still, the lingering perception of Goodwin’s detachment is hard to shake. What would have happened, I wonder, if McClure and his muckrakers had been at the center of her work?


This Time It’s Personal: Teaching Academic Writing Through Creative Nonfiction (O’Connor)

In my experience, it has long been true that once students reach high school, creative writing goes out the cliched window. Sure, there are cute assignments, and maybe a creative writing class, but high school, it seems, is about college preparation. And we all wrote thesis-driven essays in college, didn’t we? So we need to prepare our students for that in high school, right?

O’Connor questions this notion and argues for the use of creative nonfiction, another term I’ve struggled to understand. Here it seems to mean nonfiction presented in a creative way (which seems to be any form that’s not a 5-paragraph essay or a research paper). He offers alternatives like Writing Haibun (look it up!) and Exploratory Essays.

The practical parts of this book are less useful. There are a few tips and countless examples. I admit I didn’t read all of them. They’ll be useful if I try one of these genres, but perhaps extra models could have been placed in an appendix.

I wish O’Connor had done more to keep the fact that he teaches at New Trier present. There are implications for instruction that come with teaching at such a place. And I also wish he’d considered the prospect of teaching Creative Nonfiction to those students who may not be bound for college.