The Myth of Sisyphus & Other Essays (Camus)

This one was a book club selection, so if you are so inclined, you don’t have to worry about me. A veteran of The Stranger only, I have always been curious about this. I’m just not sure my philosophical chops are up to reading such things anymore. There were definitely certain points that made more sense to me, the connections to Hamlet, for example. There is certainly much to highlight and I’ll be counting on my book club to help me understand any of it. I am still interested in trying more of his fiction.

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Always Running (Rodriguez)

These are words from the ground level. Rodriguez, an active gang member at a young age (periodically, he reminds us how old he is when something has happened – and it’s always a shock), tells his story – of gang life, home life, school life – and how he found his way back from what seemed to be an early date with a violent death. He not only found his way back, but he becomes a kind of La Vida Loca interrupter, seeking to divert those who are making the kinds of choices he once made.

In his new introduction, Rodriguez recounts a sadly ironic moment in which he is invited to speak at a school but because his book is banned, he can’t bring in a copy. I grant you that as much as I became energized by the prospect of using this book in the classroom, my possibly prudish self found his detailed descriptions of his sexual exploits to be a little much. They are not enough to prevent me from using it one day, but it definitely pushed the book into the upper grades, and would have me on my guard for those who would object.

Rodriguez writes smoothly, at times poetically, though sometimes his dialogue can come across as a bit wooden and his accounts of messy moments can come across as too neat. Still, this was an eye-opener for me and inspiring. Art and writing and some teachers helped contribute to Rodriguez’s emergence, and those are all things I support.

Silencer (Wicker)

I always regret it when I don’t write reviews right away. Life’s been a bit busy, but I remember enough to say that I loved this collection – everything from its Kehinde Wiley cover and absolutely loaded (pun intended) title to the poems inside. “Taking Aim at a Macy’s Changing Room Mirror, I Blame Television” is an early favorite. “Watch Us Elocute” packs a punch. “Film Noir at Gallup Park, On the Edge,” “Animal Farm” and “Prayer on the Subdivision” are other favorites. Wicker’s voice just leaps off the page – sometimes to punch you, sometimes to prod you, always to make you think.

Marcus Wicker’s site

Moments of Reprieve (Levi)

I am not sure what to call the stories Levi presents, but essays (what’s on the cover) seems wrong. They are more than vignettes. They are, perhaps, sketches of decency amidst the everyday horror of Levi’s experience at Auschwitz. In addition to the beauty evoked by Levi’s account of the surprising appearance of a violin or the astonishing decision by a prisoner to ask for his food to be saved for a day because it was Yom Kippur (and the equally astonishing decision to grant this request) is Levi’s apparent lack of bitterness. His criticisms are gentle but definitive. Perhaps it’s because he knows that the horrors have been described elsewhere. I was surprised to learn that he’d read biographies of various leading Nazis.

These stories, these as true as they can be stories (Levi acknowledges the limits of memory and perspective) areas human and detailed and as moving as language can create. Each one could become a whole novel. Instead, Levi paints his sketch and leaves the gaps and the colors and the implications for his readers to supply.

Don’t Call Us Dead (Smith)

I’ve been a fan of Smith’s ever since I read his Dinosaurs in the Hood in Poetry Magazine. And his work spoke to our students as well, so we found what we could online and waited for this book, this National Book Award-nominated book to arrive. And it did. And wow. His poems, ranging from the personal to the political, will absolutely rock you back in your seat. The only thing better than reading them is hearing Smith himself read them. Second is the delight in my students’ faces when they hear someone who makes sense to them.

This one is mandatory – Dear White America

The running motif of the “bloodcell” absolutely haunts me.

Shackleton: By Endurance We Conquer (Smith)

I’ve been fascinated by this guy ever since I saw an exhibit about him at the Maryland Science Center. He seemed the perfect model for the adventurer who finds Victor Frankenstein on the ice and hears his story.

Still, there has to be more than that. His exploits on the ice, in terms of improvisation, are legendary. His preparation, his domestic life – not so much. Does he have the whiff of a tragic hero about him, similar to Alexander Hamilton?

Smith writes well by limiting the technical jargon and the digressions and writing a kind of adventure story himself. So much is easy to see in hindsight. I also appreciated how Smith was careful to identify where knowledge stopped and speculation began, especially as it relates to Shackleton’s finances, a mysterious letter, and his relationship with women.

Maybe Shackleton’s charisma just works on me the way Smith reports on so many people who maybe should have known better. I think Smith’s account is balanced and in the end that he applauds him, for all of his many flaws. I guess, in this age where we’re bloodthirsty to take down anyone and everyone for any flaw real or perceived, I want to applaud both Smith and Shackleton.

Hurma (Al-Muqri)

I think that to understand a satire, one must understand what is being satirized first. I am thinking here of things like Ulysses or Possession. While I can appreciate the artistry of each, especially the latter, I always read with the feeling that there were things I wasn’t getting. In the case of the Joyce, this feeling was reinforced by the Professor who gave us one week to read it (in the interests of expediency, I abandoned all of the support materials I’d accumulated when I’d read the book for a 10-week independent study), and I bailed out after maybe 25 pages. We were assigned to write a reflection and the Prof read mine and one other similar one out loud and said ours were the only 2 honest reflections he received. In the case of the Byatt, I read it in preparation for teaching a demonstration lesson, and I was stunned by the decision to high school students. When I asked my host teacher about her reason for selecting it, she mentioned all of the ways it mocked traditional graduate school approaches to literature. She came off sounding like some independent school English teachers do – like a wannabe college professor who couldn’t get a job or tenure so was taking it out on her high school students.

All that’s to say is that at times I found myself thinking of this novel as largely an inside joke. I wanted to read it simply because I’d never seen anything written by a Yemeni author before, but I have the feeling that I only reason I thought of it as satire was because I read the back cover. To be fair to myself, I did get a few moments and the ending is incredible in a number of ways, but in between, I suspect I was the one nodding while other readers were laughing the knowing laugh of insiders.