So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came To Be and Why It Endures (Corrigan)

If you teach a book over and over and over again, it can become easy to forget that it is the students’ first time. By the time I finished Corrigan’s book, I was not only jealous of my students who get to encounter it for the first time, but I was also eager to read it again and explore the many connections, interpretations, and resources that she offers in a friendly, self-aware manner. She knows she’s obsessive and is the first to poke fun at herself about it. I’d love to be in her class.

I am, as at least a few of you know, no fan of biography as interpretation, but Corrigan makes a reasonable and balanced case that it matters here. But she balances it by offering some of her own ideas about the book as well as a look into how, when and why the book moved from its initial, decidedly mixed reception to its place in the high school canon today.

If you’re a fan of Gatsby and / or need to be reinvigorated about teaching it, this is definitely the book for you.


Body and Bread (Cuba)

You will not be surprised to learn of the religious motif running through this book, but it runs deeper and stranger than you might expect. Stripped of its details, this is the story of a young girl coming of age. But, depending on what cliche you like, you know how important the details are. From the first sentence – “Please help me say the unsayable: My first life ended when my brother Sam committed suicide” – to the 11th-hour reveal, Cuba kept me off-engaged. Her protagonist, Sarah Pelton, becomes a “truth scavenger,” and I felt the same way as I read the book. This is a many-layered tale, and given my skimpy understanding of Mexican culture, I am sure there are even more layers than I recognized.

The Tsar of Love and Techno (Marra)

If an author’s first book has been successful, the second book always makes me nervous. Has it been rushed out to capitalize on the publicity? Was it, in fact, the failed first book?

And when the second book is a collection of short stories, I am extremely wary. Were these the stories with which the writer sought to establish himself (and failed to do so), but now rushed to print to capitalize on the success of the first book?

Marra’s novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, is amazing. Marra, Anisfield-Wolf award winner, combines tragedy and comedy in sentences that make you think he has access to a different alphabet.

This collection of stories affirms his greatness. There’s no sophomore slump here. These interrelated stories explore questions about memory, family and art with both poignancy and humor. When I finished “The Grozny Tourist Bureau,” I had to stop for a moment of silence in appreciation. It is one of the finest stories I’ve ever read.

After two amazing books, I am prepared to pay Marra the highest compliment I have. When his next book comes out, not only will all of my apprehensiveness be gone, I will buy it in hardback, an honor I bestow on only my favorite authors.

The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools? (Russakoff)

I understand the instinct. The short-term window. The bipartisan creation story. The big money. I even understand the top-down approach. It takes time to engage constituents and, to be honest, constituents are often under-informed about the issues in play. Would a community conversation have helped alleviate the issue of siblings being assigned to separate schools? But would it have made for better teachers?

Still, the top-down, outsider-led, system-focused, charter school-fueld approach does not seem to have improved the situation as much as it has just changed them.  Russakoff’s narrative provides compelling insights into what’s succeeding and what’s not in the Newark schools, and begins to articulate how difficult this issue is in the country at large, even when forces like Booker, Christie, and Zuckerberg align.

Russakoff introduces the idea of community schools, which hold tremendous appeal, but the 10,000 foot view shows the sources of some potential frustration. Priscilla Chan (Zuckerberg’s wife) is apparently creating a wonderful community school, but it’s one school, resting largely on the shoulders of one individual with remarkable access to funds. Ras Baraka, the mayor who followed Booker, is doing more to engage the community, but what’s happening to students while he is engaging the public?

This is a solidly written and important book.

Coyotes: A Journey Across Borders with America’s Illegal Migrants (Conover)

It seemed important to include the subtitle. Apparently, in earlier versions, the final word of the title was ‘aliens’ – a positive switch, I think.

I wanted to like this more than I did. I think the trouble stems from Conover’s uncertainty about where to locate himself in the story. In the Foreword, he writes, “This is not the whole story, but I have tried to make it their story.” I don’t think he accomplishes this. He is central to the narrative, a constant threat and sometimes boon to the Mexicans he accompanies. He also says, early on, that a Mexican farmer told him, “It is better to see once than to listen many times.” I’m not sure that was very sound advice. Though Conover reports trying very hard to fit in, he is, in the end, a tourist of sorts. More than once, his American-ness saves him. Sometimes, he uses it to (try to) benefit the Mexicans, but it is always present. It may have been useful for him to see, but I think it would have served him and this book well for him to have listened more.

I also think it would have been more engaging if had moved between his own experiences and commentary on immigration policy. His narrative does not exactly pop off the page. Perhaps shorter pieces of it, combined with policy reporting, would have made this book more engaging. It also would have made it a different book.

Still, Conover accomplishes something we need now – to stop talking about immigration as an issue and to start talking about how it involves human beings. To the extent that he humanized border crossings, Conover does exactly that.

Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story (Maraniss)

Remember this commercial.

Admit it. You thought it was cool. So did I. So did Maraniss. He found it so cool that it inspired him to revisit his childhood home and research three years in Detroit’s history – years to celebrate in many ways, but also years, he claims, in which you can locate the seeds of Detroit’s decline.

This is my second Maraniss book. I loved his biography of Roberto Clemente. He writes eminently readable narrative history. Since he’s focusing on a city during (but  not exclusively) 1962-64, this story, and it is a story, could have been all over the place, but Maraniss makes the connections easily (though the diagram at the end of the book is an exercise in goofiness).

The interconnections among the Civil Rights movement, the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, the birth and growth of Motown, and The Big Three car companies make for a compelling story and yes, without out being absurdly explicit or didactic, Maraniss does note the beginnings of what would become the riots of 67 and the economic decline of the city.

A High Wind in Jamaica (Hughes)

It took me some time to find my way into this book, “one of the hundred best novels of the twentieth century” (Modern Library). Troubled by economic difficulties and natural disasters in Jamaica, two generally clueless parents decide to send their young children back to England. Their ship is captured by a scraggly group of pirates, who make their living less by violence than deception. The children are generally too young to know what’s happening, and it’s only the interior monologue of one of the older girls, Emily, that began to draw me in, to make me wonder about the impact of this, well, “kidnapping,” on the children, on the parents, on the ends of eras (piracy, colonialism), on stories, and on innocence.

I don’t know enough to comment on its inclusion on any sort of list, but it’s definitely intriguing novel, unlike anything else I’ve read. I wish I knew someone else who had read it, so we could discuss it.