The Lighthouse Road (Geye)

This is the first piece of Minnesota Lit I’ve read since I moved away. You know, beautiful sometimes harsh landscapes. Beautiful, sometimes harsh people. Immigration issues related to Scandanavian countries. Water. Fish. Snow. And more snow.

It took a bit of time to get into this one, but once I did, it was completely absorbed. Geye clearly knows his stuff and is able to integrate the vocabulary of boats or a logging camp or whatever else he needs into his narrative.

I was puzzled at first about why he chose to move his narrative around in time. By the end, I had a few ideas, but I remain convinced that it wasn’t completely necessary. I think this story would have had just as much power (if not more) if it had been told in order.

I don’t want to disclose a plot twist as it’s important and it creates the urgency the plot needs for the main problem to come to some sort of resolution. This twist, though reasonable and realistic, came across as a bit cliched. I wonder what would have happened if Geye had not decided on this twist to speed things up or had not decided to speed things up. I’m sorry if I come across as cryptic here, but I hate reviews that contain spoilers. Let’s just say that this twist is as tired as the out of power cell phone is today.

I liked the complexity of Geye’s main characters. Some of the minor ones were in the story a bit too long to be as one-dimensional as they were.

Good, but not great – unless you are a born and bred Minnesotan.


Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (hooks)

I admit that I read this book in fits and starts, much the way I drive a shift car whenever I try it. I’m not sure what caused me to turn to it again, but it seems like I was finally ready for it, and so I became fully engaged and finished it. And I’m glad I did.

hooks is challenging. Sometimes, it’s the vocabulary or jargon, which can be annoying. Mostly, though, it is her ideas. Though they can sometimes take several paragraphs to emerge (at least for me), they resonate with me, compel a pause, a sense of feeling known as a white male teacher without (and this is a true balancing act) being judged.

She is able to make real the often elusive notion of ‘voice.’ She has challenged me to (re)think the role of personal stories in class and my expectations for classroom conduct – that of the students and my own. What and who do I privilege and why? How does my self – both physical and mental – enter the ‘space’ (a word hooks admires) that is a classroom? Do I spend more time considering the boys (who are sometimes led out of our school in handcuffs) than the girls? Have I lumped our female students of color in with all females? Do I respond better to those who know how to do school? There is so much I don’t know about myself and my students – so much that hooks has prompted me to try to investigate.

I support fully her notion that so often we spend our time and our meetings and our energy on what we teach at the expense of (re)considering how we teach.

These essays are not always easy to read, but they build, they cohere, they ask, and they trouble what we think we know. I’d like to talk about them with someone.

Do you have any other hooks titles to recommend?

Boy, Snow, Bird (Oyeyemi)

You ever get that great feeling when a character’s voice just leaps off the page? You feel like you are part of the conversation with the character and not just a passive observer. It’s a great feeling, and Oyeyemi accomplishes it throughout this strange and wonderful novel somewhat inspired by the Snow White fairy tale. All of the narrators are definitely distinguished and very thought provoking.

In addition to the wonderfully rich, flawed and dynamic characters, Oyeyemi has constructed a plot that allows her to strip away its elements, its secrets, slowly and elegantly, in a fashion that’s both magic and magical (the scene with Bird wrapped in the flag? Amazing.)

The other reason I admired this book so much is that it defies classification. Realistic? Fantasy? Who knows? Who cares?

It’s great and it merits re-reading. But I will find some of her others first. If you recommend another Oyeyemi, let me know which one to move on to next.

Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution (Carter)

The Stonewall Riots were one of the many historical references I understood only on a very superficial level, so I decided that this book offered the chance to learn more. Carter does a reasonable job taking a fragmented and complex narrative and organizing it into something more meaningful. The best part of the book is the first third. In it, Carter sets the stage for the riots by describing the circumstances – social, political, economic, geographical – that made the situation start to boil.

Carter loses momentum after that, sometimes sidetracked by what seemed like less than urgent issues and sometimes letting his own biases overwhelm his research. He mostly regains his footing in the final third of the book when he explores the impact of the riots as leaders in the community struggled to maintain the momentum that riots sparked.

I appreciated Carter’s unwillingness to oversimplify the narrative and his effort (though not really successful) to develop the ‘characters’ involved. In more skilled hands, this would have been a much better book. As it is, it’s a useful, if sometimes sluggish one.

Strategies that Work: Teaching Comprehension for Understanding and Engagement (Harvey & Goudvis)

For so long, I’ve seen this referred to as a kind of Bible for teachers of reading. And while I won’t accord it that status, it was useful for a few key concepts (the notion of “leaving tracks”), reminders and lessons. The ratio of theory to lessons is too skewed toward the latter, in my opinion. So I admit I skimmed some of the lessons. But I’ve flagged some things I’d like to try and need to remember. And there is, regrettably and necessarily , a section on Test Reading that merits some attention.

But first I’ve got to get them to read!!!

Can you recommend any books about teaching (English)?

The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child (Miller)

I am working with a student population that does not enjoy reading. Whether the joy has been destroyed by school or was never cultivated in the first place, I do not know. Though most are 14-16 years old, the books they speak of with the most fondness are the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. There remains some interest in The Outsiders and The Giver. We also don’t have a library beyond what I’ve brought in from home and scrounged with my own money from various sales. Occasionally, if a student asks for a particular book that I can’t find used, I will buy a new copy of something, especially if I think the student will read it and spread the word to others. But that becomes an expensive habit. So that’s why the description I read of The Book Whisperer intrigued me.

Though I do think there’s use to some whole class novel work, I can see Miller’s argument. Independent reading, independent reading, independent reading and time for independent reading. And the teacher has to read what interests or might interest the student. The classroom should be a community of readers.

There are a few useful ideas here, but not enough for a book. If you are against the notion of independent reading, you will not find enough research in here to convince you.

Sand Opera (Metres)

I was going to say that this is less a book of poetry than a work of art, but a book of poetry is a work of art and especially these days, a work of hope. There are those about who are experimenting with the question of what it is that makes a book, and I would say that Metres belongs in what I take to be a small, thoughtful and provocative crowd. Not only has he drawn his inspiration from a wide variety of sources, he has included diagrams that overlay some poems, fingerprints and calligraphy.

Most visible – after the stunning cover art ( – are the redactions. In Guantanamo Diary, an excellent companion piece, they are political. Here too, they are poltical, but they are also art, negative space reclaimed, much in the spirit of a British artist I’ve always admired, Rachel Whiteread (

But Metres’ use of the redaction is not a gimmick. From the title of the collection, StANDard OPERAting procedure, to the opening invocation in ‘Illumination of the Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew’ (if the flesh is the text of God / bid a voice to rise / / & rise again) to the closing prayer, ‘Compline’ (We lift the blinds, look out into ink / For light. My God, my God, open the spine binding our sight), Metres is a master of juxtaposition, placing words, images, even punctuation next to (and on top) of each other as he explores power, particularly the power of language, in the Iraqi conflict, in the cells of Guantanamo.

Consider the line quoted above from ‘Compline.’ It’s the last poem of the collection, and by then almost every word of those lines carries tremendous weight. Who does Metres mean by ‘we’? Does ‘lift’ have a positive connotation? Does it suggest physical force? What and who is blind? Blindfolded? And we see ink? Words? There’s freedom there? Power? A reclaiming? And the first ‘My God,’ how should we say it? And what of the possessive? Whose God is it? The ‘spine’ of a book (as we get set to close Metres’?) “Binding’ – Again, who is bound? Who’s doing the binding? ‘Our’ – Again, first person plural. Who does it include? What does Metres want to see? Want us to see?

I could go on. But you should read it first.