Drawn from Water: An American Poet • An Ethiopian Family • An Israeli Story (Elenbogen)

I’m not sure who first suggested that reading is the best form of travel, but whoever said definitely had this book in mind. It not only made me long for Israel (and its food), but it also nudged forward an ambition to see Ethiopia one day.

Consider the elegance of the title – Drawn from Water. What does it mean to be drawn from water? Who is drawn from water? What does water mean in both Israel and Ethiopia?

There are many metaphors in this book – that of the garden, the meaning of languages (poetry and prose / Hebrew, English & Amharic), etc.. But the one I found most central was khootz l’aaretz – the notion of being outside of the land. The Ethiopians are outside of their land when they – at least the ones who are not lost in the desert of Sudan – migrate to Israel. They are outside of the land when they are housed on the edges of Israel. Elenbogen herself is outside of the land when she moves back and forth between Israel and the United States trying to figure out which one is home.

Another layer of this memoir that works so well is the openness with which Elenbogen opens her mind to us. She unpacks the evolution of her thinking on her regular visits as she traces the development of the Ethiopian families she’s tracking. It is not enough in Israel (or anywhere) to just help people get into a country; an effort must be made to help them make the transition. And they must learn how to help themselves. It must be incredibly difficult to try to live with one foot (to borrow an image) in two countries.

Israel has, by virtue of its very existence, a kind of unique responsibility to the diaspora. That does not mean it’s easy. There are small signs of hope when Elenbogen considers the overall situation, but there is a great deal of hope in the families she’s grown to know and love (and the reader does too).

I am grateful to Ben Furnish, who apparently told Elenbogen to edit the book with her “poet’s hat on.” The loveliness of her language is as magnetic as the country itself.

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The Life of an Unknown Man (Makine)

There are parts of the first part of the novel that feel formulaic, even self-indulgent. Shutov, an older man, an under-appreciated writer, living in Paris with a younger woman. Her departure leads him to return to Russia, in search of a woman from his past. He finds her, her son, and the unknown man. And, having been left in charge of the unknown man, by Vlad (the son mentioned above who is also a publisher of sorts), he begins to learn the life of the unknown man. This is where the story – impressive but familiar – really takes off.

The unknown man tells Shutov his story – his life as an actor, a soldier, a citizen, and finally a teacher. The life he shared with Mila, a remarkable woman herself. It is here where Makine’s purpose becomes clear. Russia, the new Russia, represented by the ceremony taking place, by Vlad, by the new freedoms and money, has changed. But Makine is not romanticizing the past by telling us the story of the unknown man. There is no beauty in the war, the blockade, the purges, the cruelty. There is only beauty in the gestures of love – of saving a small portion of bread for your spouse, for teaching a young child to sing.

Makine’s prose, translated by Geoffrey Strachan, is wonderful. The scenes are vivid. An intersection covered by ice. A cemetery. A small portion of bread.

https://www.graywolfpress.org/author-list/andrei-makine

Shake Loose My Skin (Sanchez)

I’d heard the name for years, but finally took the plunge. What a remarkable voice. From “Malcolm” –

what could have been

floods the womb until i drown.

These poems are political, personal, sexual; they are clearly meant to be heard – some moreso than others and these often fall a bit flat on the page. Her prose poems, like “Mrs. Benita Jones Speaks,” are amazing – theatrical and dynamic. From “Poem for July 4, 1994,”

For we the people will always be arriving

a ceremony of thunder

waking up the earth

opening our eyes to human

monuments.

From an earlier section of the same poem –

It is essential that we finally understand

this is the time for the creative

human being

From “I Have Walked A Long Time” –

i have lived in tunnels

and fed the bloodless fish;

http://soniasanchez.net/

In the Fall (Lent)

Take a moment to savor the connotations of that title. The fall of? The fall of man? The fall as in the season? The fall of America? What or who is in the fall?

That the title merits even those questions (and more, I’m sure) is only the beginning of the power of Lent’s words. I am a pretty fast reader, but this one requires slow and careful attention. Lent’s stunning sentences constantly kept me off-balance. He omits the unnecessary, and an honest reading of this book makes you realize how many unnecessary words there are (in books, in conversation). Lent earns the comparisons to Cormac McCarthy. It’s hard to believe I can call a 542-page book spare, but I can.

The story covers three generations during an often unexamined period of American History. Post-Civil War to the beginning of the Depression. We move from father to son to his son. That can make the book sound male-dominated, and maybe that’s true, but there are three pretty powerful women here too – the matriarch of the family, Leah, and her two daughters, Abigail and Prudence.

There was only one moment I really didn’t buy – the transformation of Jamie (the son at the center of the second section) from an admittedly reluctant son of a farmer to a gangster. How does he know of life in the city, much less almost immediately have the skills and confidence to become a part of it?

A wonderfully evocative novel about changes in America and trying to account for the changes in one family.

Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II (Blackmon)

My first reaction to this book was that Blackmon was absolutely right. My image of slavery was limited to the plantation. I had no idea about industrial slavery or the extent of it, much less how well-organized it was. I knew that sharecropping was largely another name for slavery, but again, the way that Black Americans were arrested for crimes that were often as vague as they were unsubstantiated, was completely new to me. And I had to and have to wonder why that is.

At times, it seemed like Blackmon backtracked unnecessarily, to provide the backstory of someone he’d introduced into his narrative. Other times, it seemed like he went into too much detail. But I think, like Ondaatje, Blackmon knew that he “must get this book right, [because he] can only write it once.”

This book is a compelling story, one too little told, right to the end, when Blackmon teases out his own family’s intersections with the era he wants us to know as Neoslavery (and not the Jim Crow era). He also asks the compelling question about the responsibility those of us in the present have to that which happened in the past. (The Wachovia Bank story is memorable here.) In this section, I was reminded of Ta-Nahesi Coates’ outstanding piece on “The Case for Reparations” (http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/). It is one thing to say that slavery happened a long time ago, and I had nothing to do with it. But when you can say that it didn’t end until both technology and war combined to make it at least slip beneath the surface (I would argue, thanks to Michelle Alexander and others, that it’s not over even now), that makes its existence uncomfortably close to present day.

Andrew’s Brain (Doctorow)

Like others, I was sad to hear of the recent death of E.L. Doctorow. Ragtime, the book, the movie (which he apparently didn’t like) and the musical (also not his favorite) are all important to me, each for its own reasons. I thought The March and World’s Fair were okay and could not get into Homer & Langley. Instead of going back, I reached for this one, by all accounts Doctorow’s final novel.

It’s definitely not the historical fiction I think Doctorow is most known for. It’s meditative, perhaps personal, at times obscure. That it was his last adds a tinge of sadness, perhaps only because of the knowledge of his death, perhaps because this one seems to include a touch of the autobiographical.

Though I was amused by and sympathetic to the comments on an unnamed American president who did not do well at Yale, that whole section seemed to belong more to the author than to the story.

So The Book of Daniel is next. And then Ragtime.

Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise and Other Bribes (Kohn)

I’ve long had an aversion to the “If you do x, you’ll get y” approach to teaching when it comes to food, treats, stickers, etc.. But when Kohn digs into the notion of grades or even praise as part of his argument against rewards, I was, well, quite challenged. I felt like he was shining a spotlight on my practice. I’m certainly more careful with praise than I used to be (thank you, Carol Dweck) and though I’ve had my share of grade-grubbers in my time, I never really thought about grades as a reward. Still, I’m currently at a school that wants to downplay their importance, so it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out. I think it’s the right direction. The praise portion is tough. How and what do you say to a student in order to recognize effort? accomplishment? I’ve gotten better at asking questions than making statements. And I’ve tried to get out of the habit of saying things like, “I need you to do this.”

In terms of behavior, I’m pretty much on board with my understanding of Kohn’s argument (as is my school). Involve the students. Seize teachable moments. Restore and repair rather than punish.

My hackles definitely got up during Kohn’s anti-pay-for-performance diatribes (and he can lazily slip into hyperbole when he doesn’t seem to want to make an argument). While I grant that his forecasts can prove true (“I don’t like you, so you’re not getting a bonus”), I was part of an effort to administer a pay-for-performance scheme. I know that we tried very hard to calibrate our expectations and to build in checks and balances to try to make sure our results were reasonable and consistent. Since I was involved at the very beginning of the program, emotions and questions were running high, but with some consistency, I imagine it will settle into an effective system and that the staff will get used to its existence.

A good, challenging book. I wrote a lot of notes in the margins – in support of the author and to argue with him.