When the Thrill is Gone (Mosley)

This mysteriously convoluted plot, complete with a cartoonish protagonist, was just silly. I really can’t believe that I listened to the whole thing. Mosley overwrites to an absurd degree. And he, or his protagonist, has a fascination with trying to name the exact shade of a person’s skin. My favorite? Something like. . . “Her skin was the color of maple syrup in a glass jar reflected in the sunlight.” What does that even mean? I’ll have to go to IHOP to find out. The next one is either going to be an Easy Rawlins story or one of his non-fiction efforts.


The reader, Mirron Willis, does him no favors. He is too impressed with his own ability to do accents when he ought to just read the story. I never knew “Chapter Thirteen” could have six syllables.


The Bayou Trilogy (Woodrell)

Since I finished Mankell’s stunning Wallender series, I’ve been searching for a new mystery writer. This, and I admit, the fact that I saw this book on Obama’s reading list, made me pick it up. I’m glad I did. Woodrell is a true stylist. I wouldn’t want to meet any of his characters, but I sure like hearing them talk. And there’s a freedom here. These are detective stories, and they’re not. No one is a hero, except for perhaps the parish of St. Bruno. There is a family story, however fractured it may be. So I’ll pick up more Woodrell. I’ve heard good things about Tomato Red and loved the movie, Winter’s Bone.

Two objections that are not Woodrell’s doing –

1. Why anyone thought this book needed a reader’s guide is beyond me.

2. That the magazine New York suggested he bests Cormac McCarthy should make them lose their right to publish.

The City, Our City – Wayne Miller

I am not sure I know enough about poetry to write about poetry. I was intrigued by the project. I like poetry collections that are intended to be collections, and this one, about the city, the idea of the city, seemed promising. Still, I couldn’t connect. There was a detachment here, windswept to be sure, but there was none of the grit or even commentary I expected. There were no cities I recognized and very few moments rang true. The view seemed dated, the 50s, more town than city. The collection didn’t work for me, but I am pretty willing to hear that I just didn’t get it.

Crow (Wright)

I appreciate this historical basis for this novel (the Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 in Wilmington, North Carolina). There’s a need for books that focus on historical parts of the African-American story aside from the Civil War, slavery, and Civil RIghts. (I know there are, but writers seem to gravitate to those eras as well as whatever counts for modern times.) This novel, however, does not completely rise to the challenge. The plot is episodic; each section could come with its own headline. “This is the scene when Moses (subtle name, huh?) loses his innocence” or “This is the scene where Moses learns that not all white people are bad.” The novel picks up momentum by the end, but it’s a challenge to care about what are largely stock characters. The Grandmother who believes in the old ways. The father who speaks in speeches that seem to be straight out of a manifesto. Is the emotional distance the fault of Wright the writer? Or is it her effort to stay as close as she could to the characters and facts of the actual riot? In her Historical Note, she writes,  “[w]here possible, I quoted word for word from speeches and documents” (294). I appreciate the idea behind that and emphasize the need for more stories, this one does not have enough craft or spark to it to make me want to recommend it for students.

Arctic Dreams (Lopez)

This was a challenging book to get through, but it was definitely worth the persistence. Lopez is an excellent observer and writes well. Less often, though, or at least less than I would have liked, he steps back to offer some insight. In the end of chapter 5, “Migration,” he offers his most sustained commentary which serves to pull a lot of the book together. His thesis is always explicit – that we need to reconsider our relationship with the land and move from a less linear, time-focused approach to a more spatial one. We need, Lopez argues, to avoid imposing our expectations on the Eskimos and the animals of the Arctic and instead work backwards from our observations.

I marked many passages that struck me to the core and resonated with a lot of the American Indian reading I’ve been doing lately, but I think this one, from the Epilogue (413), sums the book up the best.

No culture has yet solved the dilemma each has faced with the growth of a conscious mind: how to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in all life, when one finds darkness not only in one’s culture but within oneself. If there is a stage at which an individual life becomes truly adult, it must be when one grasps the irony in its unfolding and accepts responsibility for a life lived in the midst of such a paradox. One must live in the middle of contradiction because if all contradiction were eliminated at once life would collapse. There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of a leaning into the light.

Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy (Schmidt)

This is a beautiful story. Schmidt handles the challenge of racial tensions with such wonderful sensitivity. The word “colored” is used once, and the tension is established. It looms over the plot and the town. There are no happy endings here, just compromises and the pain of growing up. Schmidt knows his adolescent characters and his adolescent readers. This novel is pitched perfectly. By the time I got to the passage below, I was near tears myself:

The world turns and the world spins, the tide runs in and the tide runs out, and there is nothing more beautiful and more wonderful in all its evolved forms than two souls who look at each other straight on. And there is nothing more woeful and soul-saddening than when they are parted. Turner know that everything in the world rejoices in the touch, and everything in the world laments in the losing.

What a stunning excerpt, both in form and content. Those lines are a master class all by themselves.

Here’s more about the author –


And I’m going to have to borrow a middle school student, so I can go see the show –


Memories of Rain (Gupta)

Memories of Rain is a remarkable novel. That it is also Gupta’s first novel makes it that much more astonishing. Like Nicholson Baker’s Room Temperature, there seems to be little plot – a woman leaves her husband. But here (as with Baker’s book), there’s so much more. The sentences and paragraphs (both generally quite epic) require the reader to dive in and swim along with the amazing current of her prose. (Forgive the water metaphors; there’s simply no other way to describe it.) The syntax is sensual and the peeling back of the proverbial onion is subtle and smooth. The image of the abandoned husband sitting amidst the abandoned birthday party is haunting and absolutely right. As a book lover, the line – “it must have been sad, she had thought, to belong to a household where one could hide things in books” (181) – made me underline it. Now if I only had some Tagore at hand.


(Thanks, Lena.)