The New Testament (Brown)

I admit it; I judged a book by its cover. The title – “The New Testament” – put me off at first. Too much religion can make me itchy. But I found the cover photo haunting, and the cover also featured an Anisfield-Wolf Books Awards sticker, and their selection committee has never let me down. I started reading the collection after I had the honor and good fortune of hearing Brown present a few of his poems at the awards ceremony, and I was simply blown away – by his presence, by his delivery, and most of all, by his words. These poems are lean. “Langston’s Blues,” “Heart Condition,” and “The Interrogation” are three of my favorites. Everything is in here – masculinity, sexuality, family, music, race, and yes, religion. Brown does not take a poem off. He does not even take a word off. This is a necessary collection, not just one to keep, but one to keep close at hand – a spiritual guide.

Cover art –

“Another Elegy” –


We Are Not Ourselves (Thomas)

And that’s it, isn’t it? We are not ourselves. We always want to be someone, something, somewhere else. In Eileen’s case, it’s about real estate, a kind of Dreiser-lite version of trying to move up and out (of the city) in a way that forms the quietest echo of the Revolutionary Road era.

But Eileen forgets the old notion that if you want to make G-d laugh, then make a plan. Something happens on her way to that place (sorry, Mr. Joel), and she and her son (perhaps Thomas himself) have to deal with it. Along the way, we see the difference between perception and reality over and over again in the form of real estate – a house, for example, that is only renovated in areas guests are likely to see.

I’m being glib; I know that. So much of this book felt so very obvious – at least until that plot twist happened that I don’t want to spoil. The notion of real estate took on some subtler shades – the body as real estate, the mind as a kind of property. So, the book is pretty slow going until then. Then it becomes interesting though rarely compelling. And it certainly could have been shorter.

I’ll be curious to see what Thomas does next. But it might take some time and persuasion before I read it.

Teaching Reading to Black Adolescent Males: Closing the Achievement Gap (Tatum)

In a few ways, this book is dated. I’m not buying the phrase “achievement gap” any longer. I like “opportunity gap.” The word ‘achievement’ assigns responsibility for the gap to the students (where some want it put). The word ‘opportunity’ puts it on the rest of us, which is where I think it belongs. Some of the resources Tatum recommends are no longer working. But most importantly, Tatum starts from the premise that the students are reading and that the work is to find out what obstacles are in their way (decoding, comprehension, text selection, etc.). My students are not reading – not for fun, not because it’s assigned, not much at all. When a 9th or 10th grader says that the last book s/he finished is The Diary of a Wimpy Kid, that’s cause for concern. But he’s right – I should do some teacher inquiry. One student at a time. What’s your reading biography? He and other authors I’ve read speak of their reading epiphany. It was an escape, someone put a book in their hand, whatever. For my students, the light is not going on and not for lack of trying (though somewhat for lack of a budget).

Tatum is great at asking questions. There are several catalogues of them that I’m sure I’ll return to regularly. (I do not what he means by the question – what does it mean to be figuratively feminized and castrated? Any ideas?)

Tatum’s theoretical chapters are worth reading; the rest are worth skimming.

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics (Brown)

Every once in a while, a book comes along that fills in a gap – in time, in place, in style. Boys in the Boat did that for me. I knew little about Washington State and the time between the wars has always been that for me – the time between the wars.

I loved the way that Brown gets out of the way of the narrative. He knows he’s got a great story, and he just lays it out for us.

My one complaint is the connection between structure and pacing. In The Devil and the White City, for example, Erik Larson is able to create momentum that propels the two narratives together. Brown has different challenges. He has to bring the characters (including people, time and place) together before he can start moving the story forward. And he does this well – balancing a wide array of characters and making them quite vivid. But he seems at a loss about how to bring the rise of Hitler into the plot. A few times, updates come at the end of the chapter and have a sort of, “Meanwhile, on the other side of the world” quality. It has the effect of saying that things are happening, looming, but they are in another place. But that seems right. From what I understand, so many Americans were unaware (just as so many Americans thought of rowing as a strictly Eastern sport). As the book continued, though, it was hard to discern a method behind Brown’s decisions about how to update the rise of the Nazis. His main point seems to be about image vs. reality, which is essential to understanding the world’s glacial response (shame on you, Mr. Brundage).

In the wake of Hillenbrand’s books Seabiscuit and Unbroken and their movie versions, I think it’s fair to say that not only is this a better book than Unbroken, it’s unlikely that there will ever be a movie version. American movies like solo heroes. And the point of this story, though it centers on one member of the crew, is about a team.

The Chameleon Couch (Komunyakaa)

I’ve so often heard poets talk in reverent tones about Komunyakaa that I finally had to discover him for myself. And. . . they were right. What amazing words. His poems are compact and powerful. I am trying to find a way to formulate a description of his style. It’s not that he moves from the specific and the general, so much as he moves between them. And ‘general’ is not right. Perhaps it’s the way he moves between the small moment and the larger issue. And it is definitely the way he can capture absolute truth in such a succinct way: “Sometimes / we all wish we could put words back into our mouths” (“A Voice on the Answering Machine”). Or, “[I]n the final analysis, / a good thought is the simplest food” (“Begotten”). Or the self-awareness of “When it comes to defending love, / I can make a lyre drag down the moon & stars / but it’s still hard to talk of earthly things – / ordinary men killing ordinary men, / women, & children” (“Orpheus at the Second Gate of Hades”).

There are worlds in these poems; find them.

Chew on This (Schlosser & Wilson)

This is the YA version of Fast Food Nation, and it is well done. The sections are short and powerful. They are also not condescending (a rare feat for a non-fiction book written for adolescents). If you’ve forgotten why you didn’t want to eat fast food after reading FFN, this is a good reminder – and one you can read together with your children.

There are lots of possible extension activities in the book and on-line. I appreciate that the book is not just about the food – but also about the treatment of employees, animals (which often get more attention than people), and ends with some hopeful notes.

My Brilliant Friend (Ferrante)

Yes, I’ve fallen for Elena Ferrante’s work. She conjures some of the most remarkably nuanced female characters I’ve ever encountered. Her narrative – though not filled with car chases – is hypnotic. Her attention is on the small, even in terms of setting. This novel culminates at a wedding and one character is described as being able to “enter and leave the neighborhood as he wished.” And it is this neighborhood that defines the novel and gives it a kind of claustrophobia. How does one get out? Academics? Travel? Wealth? Publication? Or does one seek to be the queen of one’s neighborhood, regardless of its limitations? I didn’t want the story to end. Luckily, it doesn’t. On to The Story of a New Name.

Kudos also to Ann Goldstein for the fluid and unobtrusive translation.