Binocular Vision: New and Selected Stories (Pearlman)

I have grown wary of new short story collections. So often, the authors seem to stuff them overly full with too much emotion, too much action. I look for short stories that use their format to serve their purpose. What can be accomplished in 15 pages? Who can be introduced? Pearlman’s a master. You will dive right into her world of Godolphin, MA. I don’t know if you’d want to live there, but you will recognize the people, the emotions, the small moments. Her stories – from first to last – are ones that will prompt a small gasp from the reader before s/he moves on to the next one. The final story – “Self-Reliance” – is a perfect example. Just when I thought this one had gotten away from her – tomatoes and a character hanging out on the edge of the story – made it the perfect way to end this fabulous book.

I am always curious why certain authors flourish and others become so popular. Based on Ann Patchett’s excellent introduction, there was certainly a secret society of fans. Thanks to this new edition, I am sure there will be many more. The book was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Understanding the Digital Generation (Jukes, McCain, Crockett)

I am not a Luddite, but I’m close. I remain unconvinced of the need to do more to incorporate more technology into the classroom. This book did little to change my mind. In addition to be being poorly written (perhaps a byproduct of having 3 authors), it is repetitive and they use too many exclamation points. They cite the negative impact of what they call “digital bombardment’ and then (repeatedly) say we should bombard students even more because that’s the only way we’ll connect with them. Students don’t read, so we should assign less reading? This kind of thinking makes little sense to me. Does anyone have a more persuasive book to suggest?

Head Off & Split (Finney)

At some point late in high school / early in college (late 80s / early 90s), a t-shirt started to appear. On the back it said, “It’s a black thing, you wouldn’t understand.” Those shirts used to make me angry. I thought they should say, “It’s a black thing, you’d better¬†understand.” For the first time in my reading experience, I’m wondering if this National Book Award winning collection of poems just wasn’t meant for me. It seems to appeal to an audience that has a life experience, a history, that I lack. The language is artful, the images, especially those related to fish, memorable. But I’ll have to re-read it to see if I can make meaning of more of the poems for myself. If you haven’t seen her acceptance speech, watch it now.

 

 

The Tree of the Doves (Merrill)

This is a challenging book. There are three essays – “Ceremony,” “Expedition,” and “War.” I liked the first and last ones the most. You have to follow the mind and the considerable knowledge of the author, Christopher Merrill, as he travels the world (and I’m quite sure I couldn’t find some of the places on a map) to explore those three big topics. At times, I had trouble tracking his connections or keeping up with the ample amounts of background about the history of religion. Still, I stayed with it (in part because he’s visiting my class tomorrow). Maybe because it’s the last essay and I had finally gotten used to his style and maybe because it is his best essay, much of “War” is a page-turner. I found myself reaching for a pencil time and time again to highlight passages that leapt off the page. Examples:

“Your silence makes you an accessory” (276).

“It takes nothing to lay waste the sacred” (244).

“Poets search for a language adequate to experience” (229-230).

“In Greek tragedy there is always a reckoning for individuals contemptuous of the moral order. The same holds for overreaching states and empires” (225).

“The status quo invariably leads to a hardening of attitudes – and neglect” (222-223).

“Leadership consists in summoning every one of us to a larger vision of what we can make of our lives. This George W. Bush did not do” ¬†(223).

“More binds together these monotheistic faiths rooted in the desert (traditions of prophets and revelations, of ethics and eschatology) than divides them – and yet what blood flows from the differences” (220).

Merrill’s politics are quite clear (as you may have surmised), and perhaps I admired the “War” essay because he found words for what I felt. Whatever the reason, I am glad I read this.

The Liberation of Gabriel King (Going)

This Michael L. Printz Honor Winner is quite good. It’s 1976; Gabe and Frita are best friends. Gabe is white; Frita is black. Jimmy Carter is running for President. There are plenty of great themes here – friendship, integration, facing your fears, bullies, etc., but there is a word – the “n” word – that takes center stage. This book is written for lower school students. Should they read that word? Should they hear it if the teacher reads it aloud? I think, if well-handled, this can work for LS students. They are familiar with name calling and generally know enough to know that this is one of the worst kinds. Why is it too early to have that conversation? I think the story he tells on 103 is worth the whole book; he has changed his perspective and shows even his toughest critic that he understands oppression. I would not want a LS student to read it on her / his own, but with the right teacher or parent, this is a thought provoking text.

Leviathan (Westerfield)

This is the first in a trilogy that’s quite popular with middle level readers. The use of alternate viewpoints has almost become a default these days. Ultimately, of course, the two voices come together. The sci-fi elements here are about as much as I can manage. I don’t really track them; I kind of treat them like the names of characters in Russian novels. Still, inventing a world, like Westerfield does here, requires a great deal of often long-winded exposition. Also, the allusions to WWI and Darwinism are too sloppy for my tastes. What will readers learn and remember? The author’s note – an effort to explain what’s true and what’s not – isn’t enough. I don’t plan to read the next two.

How to Read the Air (Mengestu)

Dinaw Mengestu’s second novel, How to Read the Air, is a remarkable book, better than his excellent The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears. The protagonist, Jonas, fresh off his divorce, attempts to recreate a journey his parents took from Peoria, Illinois to Nashville, Tennessee. Mengestu weaves these two stories (as well as others) together in a remarkably fluid and purposeful way. His prose is economical and often stunning. His attention to detail, especially when it comes to Jonas, is outstanding. This book asks questions about the meaning of the stories that precede us, the stories we tell ourselves, and the stories we tell others. It’s the kind of book that will stay with you long after you finish it.