1914 (Echenoz)

This slim novel, translated from the French by Linda Coverdale, is one of the best pieces I’ve ever read about war. Anthime, his friends and his brother all kind of drift into World War I, a war everyone seems to expect will only last two weeks. (Why are there so many instances in history where people think wars will be short? How many actually have been?) But they learn. Some learn and don’t return. Others do and return, but are not the same.

Echenoz’s writing is detached, almost journalistic. I wonder how it reads in the original. So when he does give a detail, it has the effect, to borrow from one pretty funny passage of “a dot of contrasting color [that] intensifies a monochrome” (86).


Last Night at the Lobster (O’Nan)

I really have to read more of his work. The one, my second, was just outstanding. A Red Lobster in Connecticut is closing, and Manny must manage the last day. There’s a blizzard. He has relationship problems. Some employees have stopped showing up; others want to leave early. Someone has been stealing supplies. A kid throws up. An unanticipated party of 16 shows up for a retirement party. Customers complain. O’Nan, once again, just nails it. In just under 150 pages, he creates the present and past of this restaurant in such an honest and insightful way. There is an opportunity for a certain kind of ending, but O’Nan resists it without letting all of the air out of the tires.

Do you have a favorite O’Nan?


Rise (Jordan)

Jordan is a tremendous poet. I don’t know why he doesn’t get more attention. Using historical figures and incidents as a launching point, he makes people and places come alive in a precise strokes. “John Henry Tells Alan Lomax All About the Work Song The Night Before He Races the Steam Drill” is a dynamic and insightful piece. “The Journey of Henry ‘Box’ Brown” is equally stunning.

And as much as he dips into history, Jordan’s work finds its way into the present. “The Overcoat” is the story of the time when the persona and his brother (both black) have guns drawn on them because, most immediately, the persona is wearing a long overcoat and he seems to be suspected of stealing. And this is how their mother finds them when she pulls up to pick them up. This poem returned me to the end of the first poem, “Notes from a Southpaw,” which tells the story of a fight the persona gets into because he has been called the “n” word. After the fight ends, the narrator asks,

And when the police get here, tell me,

how do I make them    understand    all of this?

We Should All Be Feminists (Adichie)

I like the idea of publishing the text of TED talks, though I’m sure not everyone speaks or writes as well as Adichie. Her initial one – “The Danger of a Single Story” (http://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story?language=en) – is just astonishing. (In fact, why not publish both in one volume?) But it was great to get the chance to read this 48-page essay / talk (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hg3umXU_qWc).

I’ve always been unclear what is meant by “feminism.” I’ve heard students and others refer to the stereotypes Adichie references here. But her understanding of feminism resonates with mine and, given that, I do agree with her title.

Her non-fiction, just like her fiction, is just a joy to read. She weaves anecdotes with analysis in an engaging way. While she gives equal time to the major problems with our perception of the genders (for example, unequal pay for equal work), I appreciate her attention to the small things, like the time she was not allowed to be classroom monitor even though she had earned the highest score on a test. The classroom monitor job, she was told, was reserved for boys. Adichie reminds us that “[i]f we do something over and over again, it becomes normal” and “if we see the same thing over and over again, it becomes normal” (13). Why is it that we call a group of people – both males and females – “guys,” for example?

Read it, watch it, encourage TED to publish more of these.

The Big Sea (Hughes)

I’ve gone through an evolution in my understanding of and appreciation for Langston Hughes’ poetry. First, I fell in love. Then I saw it as gateway poetry, both for myself and for my students. Then I saw it as too common – even banning it (along with Shel Silverstein – as possibilities for a high school poetry assignment. I may have thrown Maya Angelou and even Robert Frost in there, too.) Now, after reading his autobiography, I’m back in love with the poetry and wondering why I haven’t read much of his fiction or seen any of his plays.

I enjoyed two main parts of this autobiography. First, I had absolutely no idea of Hughes’ work and world experience – and all at such a young age. Second, I relished the sections that allowed him to explain the origin and progression of his poems. In fact, I would have loved more of this.

As with some of his poetry, this autobiography can appear simple, but there is much to be unpacked and explored. Other names to investigate, for example, as well as other questions – the unfortunate rift between he and Zora Neale Hurston, the relationship between black artists and white patrons and audiences, the expectations (pressures?) placed on black writers to present a certain face to the world, etc..

Skip Rampersad’s introduction. He’s usually better than he is here.

Every Day is for the Thief (Cole)

If you haven’t discovered Mr. Cole through this book, Open City, or his essays on photography in the New York Times, you need to. Here, as in Open City, the text can be kind of meandering, and the line between non-fiction and fiction more than a little blurred, but I think it has been the essays that have helped tie everything together for me. We often speak of lenses these days, and in most cases, we mean pre-loaded filters we use to view and understand the world. But for Cole, the camera lens matters as well. Cole, introduced to me by a great teacher and an overly modest photographer, provides the pictures in this book as well. He, or his persona, has returned to Nigeria after a long absence. That fact distances him from what he sees, both with his eyes and through his lens. And so does hiding behind his camera. He sometimes rejects the safety advice of his family and ventures into areas they deem unsafe in ways they deem unsafe. Still, he is always conscious of seeing and being seen. How should he act in order to appear local so as to not get victimized. What is that woman reading on the bus. And the various screens, such as the front wind shield in a car, are always present.

It is the quality of liminality that pervades this book. Where is home? He lives in a compound and wants to be in and of the world. There is much for him to love about Nigeria and he doesn’t want to return there to live. And this liminality is supported by both the form of the book – not really linear (much like Nigeria, he says at one point), more episodic – and his photographs (see 104-105 for a great example – Cole has framed a photo of a dog by looking through what seems to be the grille work of a fence or railing – in another frame, there is a man we see through his window, also looking at the dog. I’m not explaining this well. Buy the book.)

Yep, there it is. Buy the book.


Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town (Reding)

The book is heavy on the death part. What people do to themselves, to their children never ceases to astonish and disgust me. But Reding wants us to take a step back. What have other factors – familiar ones like the loss of industry and less familiar ones like Big Ag and Big Pharma done to places, the Rockwellian notion of small town that Oelwein, Iowa symbolizes for Reding. This story, Reding repeatedly strives to make clear, is not about Oelwein, but it is about all of us.

There are small victories, small moments of life. Jobs return. The number of Mom ‘n Pop meth labs decrease. Downtowns grow. But these victories are small. The two big industries noted above as well as the Mexican drug cartels have us beaten. CVS won’t refuse us cold medicine even if they could prove we’d bought too much in too short a time.

Progress is made – there are heroes, both local and (inter)national, but the drug cartels not only catch up, they anticipate. Are problems really getting solved or are they just moved? Meth is known as an American drug; it was once recommended as a way to get yourself to work harder, longer. Now, like the story of Monsanto where Reding’s father worked for many years, it has grown too big. So much has gotten away from us.

It was a bit of a slog to get through this one. Reding is unable to sustain much narrative momentum. Perhaps there are too many strands. Perhaps he was just overwhelmed by all of it. I certainly was.