Sunday, December 12, 2010

JUST KIDS by Patti Smith

Exquisite! Her ode to Robert Mapplethorpe (her lover and then her friend, and always her inspiration and support), and to art, poetry, music, love, erotica, friendship, and the need to create... in Patti's gorgeous, gear six language. Best book I've read in months.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

THE HUNGER GAMES trilogy by Suzanne Collins

My students have been begging me to read this young adult trilogy, telling me that the books fit in with our study of the literature of social justice. Indeed they were just the trick during a run of low spirits, where I couldn't concentrate on anything that required summoning up keen intellect or stamina. The plot-lines worked their spell; and I was able to disappear into the books and forget everything else while I was reading. The first book, especially, is a page-turner. Books two and three ride on the momentum of book one. You won't stop to parse any beautiful sentences or ask yourself how the author did that... but she writes cleanly, the pacing is taut, and you won't stop reading either, as the heroine battles a brutal, authoritarian government.

A GATE AT THE STAIRS by Lorrie Moore

I love Lorrie Moore. But a month or so after finishing this book, all I can remember is that I thought it was beautifully written, but that I had to work at finishing it. I can't remember a single thing about the plot or characters. I'm going to my bookshelf to read the back cover for a reminder.


Shteyngart is, for me, one of the wave of male literary darlings whose prose is too clever for its own good... style over authentic characters, depth of feeling... Yeah, you're cool. You're a man's man. Get over it. But his take on contemporary values, digital culture, our obsession with youth, and yes, the state of the world, is spot on and well worth the read. The fact that his hero lives in the Grand Street Co-ops, where I lived after college and until Leo was two, made the book even more fun for me. Same old 'hood as it ever was--even in the not-to-distant future of Shteyngart's imagination.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Saturday, September 18, 2010

SARAH'S KEY by Tatiana de Rosnay

One part haunting historical event, one part pop lit, stir. Revolving around the real-life round-up of nearly 10,0000 French Jews by the Vichy government, the characters, plot and writing are--unfortunately--the stuff of a mainstream, commercial novel. Hard to put down, in a movie-of-the-week sort of way, but also for the historical content. Strange combination... didn't work for me.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

MOLLY FOX’S BIRTHDAY by Deirdre Madden

Finely wrought character studies; precise, frill-free language; elegant; nothing really happens.

ANGELS by Denis Johnson

Denis Johnson, where have you been all my life? Exquisite and singular use of language in this achingly sad story about hardscrabble characters on the wrong side of luck. Johnson used to live in Wellfleet; how did I miss him?? I’ll be reading more of him soon.

HALF OF A YELLOW SUN by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Set during the Nigeria’s Civil War of the late ‘60s and the establishment of the short-lived nation of Biafra, this is the story of twin sisters, their loves, their relationship with each other, and how their lives are torn apart by war. Simple, elegant prose and richly explored characters.

THE CORRECTIONS by Jonathan Franzen

Why does everyone think Franzen is the new golden boy of letters??? (Francine Prose, whom I admire—see READING LIKE A WRITER—is among his legion of lit-star fans.) On the one hand, his author-as-wry-cultural-philosopher-as-narrator of this American family drama reminded me somewhat of this generation’s Philip Roth. On the other hand, Franzen is no Philip Roth. His writing can be clever, but too often it’s bloated with tired, fabulously extended metaphors masquerading as literary pyrotechnics, and verbose descriptions of minutiae meant to develop character. The story material is your basic commercial package: the aging suburban parents who offer easy pop shots throughout most of the book, but finish up in a cloyingly empathetic fashion, the failed academic fuck-up of a brother, the successful materialist of a brother, the sexy lesbian sister. Sure, you want to know what happens to them… but you’ve got to wade through a hell of a lot armchair pontificating and excess verbiage.


A first-rate exploration of what goes into a great book. Stuffed with delicious excerpts that made me want to read and reread many of the books cited.


Still brought me to tears on my third or fourth read. Thinking of teaching it this year… worried about some of the challenges it will present… As enlightened as Lee’s novel was when she wrote it, it’s nevertheless a reflection of its times, by a White, Southern Lady—caps intentional. This might engender exciting discussion, but also might get lost on the many 8th grade students who still think in a largely black and white fashion (so to speak), don’t read contextually… or don’t read books this long at all. I normally teach Part One of Richard Wright’s BLACK BOY instead—one of the best books in the English language, an easier sell to a group of students who read—and think—on wildly disparate levels, and an easier book to read in a spotty fashion without losing the main thread. Nevertheless, would love to sell this book—and rich discussions about language and society.

PERFECTION by Julie Metz

Metz’s memoir describes her husband’s sudden, untimely death, her subsequent discovery of his adultery, and her reevaluation of her marriage. Kind of a guilty pleasure read. The prose is smooth enough, but the story is more ordinary than the author would have it, and the denouement gets a little self-helpy.

ZEITOUN by Dave Eggers

I am a fan of Eggers’ nonfiction. Though his last work of book-length journalistic nonfic—WHAT IS THE WHAT—had more literary zing, ZEITOUN is readable, compelling, and a deeply important story about American politics and prejudice in post-Katrina New Orleans. The protagonist, a Muslim immigrant and successful contractor and builder, is a testament to the American Dream and to decent human values, despite being put through an American nightmare.


A smart, irreverent history of the English language (“Shiite Happens” is one of the chapter titles). McWhorter argues that the accepted story of English focuses on vocabulary—words from Latin, Norman French and German—while the more critical and underexplored story is that of our singular grammar and the way in which it was influenced by a mix of cultures, most notably the Celts, Vikings, and Phoenicians. While the latter part of the book can get a bit repetitive, McWhorter’s writing is breezy, clear and fun. I bought many, though not all, of his contentions, and enjoyed the insight into grammatical points I hadn’t thought about. Worth reading if you love words.

Friday, July 9, 2010


A 'literary thriller,' disturbing, beautifully written... but not a page-turner. Took me forever to finish... something about the careful pacing, the finely drawn, quiet agony of the characters who mostly live inside their own heads... it was a slow read. Nice payoff at the end, but happy to move on...

Monday, June 7, 2010


Set during the siege of Sarajevo, chapters alternate between the POVs of three different natives of the city, and revolve loosely around a cellist who puts himself at risk to snipers, to play the same piece every day in a public plaza. I loved the first half of this book, its poignancy, its spare, elegant prose. But as I got further along, I found it somewhat repetitive... umpteen descriptions of the characters waiting in the shadows for the right moment to dash into the open and across the street, and not enough characterization to distinguish one POV or character from the next. The two male voices in particular were hard to distinguish from one another. Nevertheless, a highly worthwhile read with critical themes and ideas.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Story Cycles

Reading Colum McCann's LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN a few months ago, kicked off a run of other story cycles (WHERE THE GOD OF LOVE HANGS OUT and OLIVE KITTERIDGE and THE IMPERFECTIONISTS). I read lots of short stories (especially when someone bestows their back copies of The New Yorker on me), and lots of novels. This roll of reading has offered a happy blend of the two, after a fall and winter with too many disappointing reads. (I was so excited about Lethem's CHRONIC CITY that I bought it in hardcover, and finished only the first few chapters; Mary Karr's LIT, which I also bought in hardcover? I'm a huge Karr fan, but this one is preachy and pedantic. She found God and got sober. HALF-BROKE HORSES by Jeanette Walls is not nearly as compelling as her stellar debut, THE GLASS CASTLE.) Anyhoo, the linked stories got me thinking that some of my all-time favorite books have been story cycles (or linked short stories or novel-in-stories or whatever you want to call them). Two that come immediately to mind are Faulkner's AS I LAY DYING, which I first read in maybe 10th or 11th grade (thanks, Paul O'Rourke), and got me thinking about point of view for the first time, and Tim O'Brien's THE THINGS THEY CARRIED. Since I'm on a bender here, I'd welcome other reading (or rereading) suggestions.


I absolutely loved the conceit. Shea, who reads dictionaries for fun, read the entire twenty-one volume Oxford English Dictionary in one year, clocking ten hours a day of squinting at fine print. He read it, he says, "so you don't have to." In twenty-six chapters, he describes the process, and selects his favorite words for each letter of the alphabet. His commentary on the project, on language, on humanity and on himself is as acerbic as leaky battery fluid, brilliant and laugh aloud funny. The word entries are fascinating, as is the look into Shea's uber-bibliophilia. But the majority of this book is a lexicon, and I admit to skimming some of the entries. Not everyone likes reading dictionaries, as passionate as we may be about words.


A novel in stories about the expats who put out a once somewhat venerable, now dying English language newspaper in Rome. Nicely crafted, lots of fun, good writing, fun, quirky characters. Liked a lot, but didn't adore. I wonder if this is because I've read several really stellar story cycles recently. Would nevertheless recommend this as an appetizing summer read.


While teaching MAUS, Art Spiegelman's brilliant graphic memoir about his father's experiences in the Holocaust, I had this idea that I should reread Frankl, which I hadn't read in many years. I still found Part One, in which Frankl documents his time in the camps, an achingly humanizing account. I still found Part Two, Frankl's theory of Logotherapy, something I felt compelled to slog through in tribute to the author. That said, this book is essential reading, though Frankl is a better idea man than writer. I find Primo Levi's THE DROWNED AND THE SAVED the most eloquent and potent work on this subject.


I read this one a few months ago and forgot to add it to this blog. Stellar! These linked stories are a paean to the edgy New York of the 70s (in which I came of age). Keen, unusual structure that works perfectly for the material, graceful characterizations, compelling story lines, caffeinated pace.

OLIVE KITTERIDGE by Elizabeth Strout

A short story cycle about the inhabitants of a small town on the Maine coast, linked around the sharp, irascible Olive Kitteridge, a retired 7th grade Math teacher in the town. I loved this book. Strout does passion, caprice, idiosyncrasy and need among people of a certain age with humanity and poignancy. Her writing is lyrical, lucid and very funny.

DIAMOND RUBY by Joseph Wallace

My old high school chum wrote this page-turner with characters I cared about, and ideas that matter deeply. Rollicking fun, too. A love song to baseball, old New York and brother(sister)hood. It's a terrific read for teens and adults.

TRUTH AND BEAUTY by Ann Patchett

I frequently recommend Lucy Grealy's poignant memoir, AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A FACE, to my 8th grade students (and other readers, both adult and teen). Grealy--charismatic, talented, troubled--committed suicide in 2002. Patchett was her roommate in grad school and her best friend until Grealy's death. In TRUTH AND BEAUTY, Patchett tells Grealy's story, and the story of their friendship. For all Patchett's success as a novelist, she seems to feel that Grealy was the more talented writer. This lovely book dispells that notion. I've also enjoyed several of Patchett's novels.

Monday, February 8, 2010


Tempted to describe it as Love Story meets The Killing Fields... but it's far better than that would make it sound. The occasional passage of dripping prose, and a second person narrative that is at turns eerily effective and irritating... but mostly a tightly-paced story of love and obsession set against the Cambodian Genocide. What makes us human? What robs us of our humanity? What is it about a good love story that we can never get enough of them?

Why Not Put It All In One Place?

I have lost track of all the places I've tried to log the books I've read. Some of the places I remember: the back pages of a Filofax that I used before I went digital, a notebook, several different Web apps, some that interfaced with Facebook, some stand alone, the independent reading site that I ask my students to use, but where I was the lone teacher posting...

I have been a voracious reader all my life... but when I finish a book, I tend to forget nearly everything about it, except whether I liked it or not. If I write a few sentences about it, I may remember a little more.

This site is really for me... to keep track. But I'm also hoping my reading friends may want to talk books here.