Maps (Freeman)

My only objection to this wonderful collection is that it’s a collection and not, in my view, a book. Freeman has traveled a great deal. Thus, the more literal definition of maps. But for reasons I could not pick up on, unless it’s to present us with an anti-map approach, he alternated these poems with some deeply more personal ones, maps dare I say, of the human heart. So poems like “Barbers” and “Maps” and “Bomb Shelters of the Oligarchs” are all amazing, but the collection never develops the momentum it deserves.

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The Book of Disquiet (Pessoa)

Though I am no fan of genres, I did find myself flipping to the back cover of this book more than once because I kept wondering: What is this? Apparently, the author called it a “factless autobiography.” Elsewhere, it’s listed as fiction.

It’s a non-linear meditation. Part-philosophy, part character study. It’s presented in fragments that were, I believe, re-ordered posthumously. But order, I suspect, did not matter much to Pessoa. There are elements of Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” here. The ‘character,’ if the author’s persona can be called such a thing, is a clerk who seems to manage accounts. There are parts that I annotated heavily, parts that I found repellent, and parts I didn’t understand.

Though Pessoa would probably reject the notion of reading the book and then discussing it with others, this book definitely proves that it is not good for a reader to be alone.

Dear Martin (Stone)

There is often a necessary delay between historical events and how they are addressed in fiction. I don’t just mean the time it takes for a writer to respond, but the interval that is somehow required before we can consider the event in print and then (because I think it has to follow) in fiction.

The (my?) increasing awareness of the brutal treatment of people of color at the hands (and guns) of the police has certainly been explored in non-fiction written for adults.  See Wesley Lowery’s They Can’t Kill Us All for a recent and excellent example. But right now, I can’t think of any fictional examples.

But writers of young adult fiction (a genre that is becoming increasingly complex while at the same time remaining difficult to define) are not shying away from the challenge. Angie Thomas’ brilliant The Hate U Give is a powerful example. Stone’s Dear Martin, though it overlaps a bit in terms of its topicality, is both a very different and an equally outstanding book.

Like Thomas (and Sharon Draper in Tears of a Tiger – come to think of it, these are all first novels), Stone appears to violate a storytelling convention. The event that might normally be reserved for the conflict is, instead, a catalyzing one. But that’s a poor reading on my part. These stories are less about the dramatic event – perhaps because there’s a tragic inevitability to it and more about the aftermath.

Stone’s book, written briskly in the present tense, retains its urgent tone for all of its 208 pages. I read it in two days, not because it was written for young adults and therefore easy, but because its pages demand to be turned. Like Draper’s novel, Stone uses a variety of formats – narrative, dialogue, news accounts, letters – to propel the story forward. I don’t know what the first draft of the novel looked like, but in this version, there is not a wasted moment; every page, every character – everything matters. There is, from my perspective, plenty to discuss here including post-traumatic stress disorder, stereotype threat, and the sins of our fathers.

I also admired how Stone drew me into Justyce’s perspective when he took the bus to see Martel. I knew I was behind his eyes because I was making the same assumptions he was. And Stone, here and elsewhere, makes it clear that there are no angels here. Justyce has his flaws. He is, despite his name (which seemed heavy-handed at first, but pays off, well, I made a promise to avoid spoilers), no more an example of exceptionalism than he thought he was. His friendship with Manny, his friend who is slowly awakening to the world, is nuanced and honest. And his mother, though her pages are limited, is also dynamic. Where others may have sketched a cliche here, Stone creates humanity.

The person who recommended this book to me wrote that he had to check to find out if the author is female. I think I know at least one of the reasons why. Stone’s descriptions of Justyce’s mental, physical and verbal awkwardness is absolutely pitch-perfect. His sweet clumsiness makes him endearing and reminds us that he is, in many ways, just an ordinary teenage boy. And that’s part of the tragedy here. What happens to him is becoming increasingly ordinary. But this book reminds us that we can’t let it become normal.

I can’t let the title pass without comment. Justyce, for reasons he never explicitly articulates (in part because he’s not sure himself) writes letters to Dr. King in order to try to figure out how he would respond to events in Justyce’s life. King, Justyce realizes, ends up teaching more by example than anything that can be discovered in his writings.

Nic Stone’s site

a much better review, the one that convinced me to read this

Counting Descent (Smith)

Smith’s well-titled (play with that second word a while) is, like his poems, compact, powerful, and purposeful. I will also add versatile as Smith ranges over a variety of forms and topics, from current events (with attention to a topic that he covers in one of his TED Talks – “How to Raise a Black Son in America,to New Orleans (his hometown), to language, to love.

There are too many favorites to list here. Here’s one –

“what the cicada said to the brown boy”

Here’s his site – Clint Smith’s site. Go ahead and get his book for yourself.

The First Love Story: Adam, Eve, and Us (Feiler)

Perhaps if Feiler had been more immediately forthcoming with the story of his health struggles and their apparent relationship to his quest to find the Bible in every day life, I might have been more indulgent with him. Since these facts are offered as minor and seemingly insignificant asides after far too many pages have gone by, I just found Feiler’s whole project to be at best, entertaining, and at worst, well, self-indulgent and silly.

There are occasional glimpses of insight into the story of Adam and Eve and its meaning today, but more often than not, Feiler contorts whatever ideas he encounters to suit his pre-determined thesis and either ignores or overlooks other ideas. I found myself writing, often angrily, in the margins, but I eventually abandoned the effort. His whole project was so incredibly self-serving as to be almost offensive. I’m quite sure others would have been able to do much more with uninterrupted access to the Sistine Chapel, for example.

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.

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.