Friday, December 25, 2015



I tend to be a skipper. Somewhere midway through or so, I start paging forward, skimming large chunks of a book, then slow down to preview a part I’m not up to yet, then go back to where I left off and read forward. Or I page back and reread, when I think I missed the full impact. I read some passages deeply, noting style and texture, but read other passages for plot. Sometimes I skip words and sentences altogether, to cut to the chase.

But I read every word of all 686 pages of this epic novel. Why? The language. It doesn’t hurt that the story’s good—based on the assassination attempt on Bob Marley in 1976, and the political and gang intrigue in Jamaica surrounding and following it. Told from the points of view of a dozen or so characters, what got me and kept me was James’ ear for dialect--Jamaican, American, British, Latin-American, upper crust, street… and how he uses it to reveal the interior lives of his characters.

It’s a fantastic read. But be warned—it’s violent, and though one of the most compelling characters is female, the overall tenor is so male that three-quarters of the way through, I went out and bought four books by women writers to stack up by my bed like talismans (or taliswomans).

Sunday, October 18, 2015

BETWEEN YOU & ME: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris

Instead of a rating, I give this book a white privilege alert. Reader, beware.

Norris, a copyediting diva for The New Yorker, has written a memoir that offers the kind of a fine-tooth comb examination of everyday grammar and punctuation that is fascinating to an English teacher like moi. And she's sassy and she gives you a behind the scenes at The New Yorker. But she lost me on page 2. Describing a long ago job at the Cleveland Costume Company, she writes: “On my first day, a young black woman, Yvonne, was setting Santa beards in rollers so that they would be curly by Christmas. An older black woman worked in the kitchen… and said things like ‘My dogs is killin’ me.’ “ Is there a reason for describing the first two characters we meet by their race? Well, on page three, the young Norris has a Halloween party where “One of the guests came as a penis; another as a Ku Klux Klansman. Initially, I was sorry that Yvonne declined my invitation, but not anymore.”  Oh. I see. Yvonne and the colorful older woman are there for a hahahaha-I-grew-up-such-a-redneck moment. The older woman doesn’t figure in the story again, but isn’t her language something.

Funny? Perhaps I missed the joke. There’s nothing funny about a writer who thinks that a friend dressing up as a Klansman makes for a humorous opening anecdote to her book.  Are you surprised to hear that the rest of the characters introduced in Between You and Me are white by default? And this from someone who is one of the gatekeepers of what’s fit to print. How could her editors at Norton have let this through? How could the long list of people she acknowledged (including a few I know) not have bristled?

I read the rest of the book—and enjoyed it as only a grammar geek could—but I never really got past those initial pages. Once she set herself up that way, Norris’ voice—arch yet pithy—just annoyed me, rather than making me laugh.  I’m the queen of the red pen in my 8th grade English classroom, but some things are more important than punctuation.

Thursday, September 24, 2015


Very good

Coates is possibly the most important writer on race in this country today. I read everything he publishes in The Atlantic, and find him keenly insightful and illuminating, as well as eloquent. Between the World and Me delivers in some ways, but not in others. I’m going to say it’s a must read… for its ideas. But Coates is an essayist, and this—written as a letter to his son—is a kind of memoir, a form that demands rich storytelling. In this aspect, I found the book to fall a tad short.  Coates tells far more than he shows, and his prose—so elegant in his essays—occasionally veers into the purple, and can be somewhat pedantic and repetitive. He establishes his thesis early on—that the White Dream is deadly to the Black body—and he goes on to replicate it in a kind of theme and variations. Between the World and Me is an homage to Richard Wright—whose very words and language he borrows from liberally*—and James Baldwin, whose “Letter to my Nephew” was the inspiration for this work. Wright tells a better story, imho, and Baldwin’s prose is simpler and clearer—and just as outraged and powerful. Criticisms notwithstanding, the ideas and emotions are absolutely vital to our national discussion. Read it.

*(For instance, Wright, Black Boy: “There was the hint of cosmic cruelty that I felt when I saw the curved timbers of a wooden shack that had been warped in the summer sun.” Coates, Between the World and Me: “And I felt in this a cosmic injustice, a profound cruelty, which infused an abiding, irrepressible desire to unshackle my body and achieve the velocity of escape.”)

Sunday, September 6, 2015

ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE by Anthony Doerr, BATTLEBORN by Claire Vaye Watkins; STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel; LOVING DAY by Mat Johnson

Very Good
It’s hard to put down this tender, suspenseful, nicely crafted novel, set in WWII Europe. On the other hand, Pulitzer Prize winner? There’s the brave, clever blind girl, who’s part of the French resistance; the oversized German killer who loves classical music and has a streak of goodness; and so on. They’ll pull at your heartstrings, yes, but they verge on caricature. The sentence-by-sentence writing is lovely, the plot compelling… but I’m not sure it rises above a better-than-average, page-turning, heartfelt summer read.

BATTLEBORN by Claire Vaye Watkins
Very Good
Hard-edged, smart, well-written stories set in the Nevada dessert. One reviewer described the author as an Annie Proulx for the Wild West, for her evocative way with the places in which her stories are set. Not sure about that, but this collection nevertheless warrants a read. The book gained cult status, partially because Watkins is the daughter of Charles Mansion Family Member Paul Watkins, a fact that figures heavily in the first story, and is reflected in some of the others.

STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel
A traveling band of actors in a post-apocalyptic world. Thoroughly enjoyable, moving and thoughtful, with characters you want to read about, good writing, and a gripping plot. Highly recommended.

LOVING DAY by Mat Johnson
The first couple of chapters are absolutely stellar. Johnson writes about being Black—and White—in this country with honesty, irreverence, guffaw aloud humor, smarts… and a refreshing fearlessness of the muzzle of a mass-market strain of political correctness that silences productive, respectful dialogue around critical issues of race and identity. But after those first chapters, the novel degenerates into a silly romp with characters, relationships and situations that require far too big a leap of faith. Still. Read the beginning.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

GO SET A WATCHMAN by Harper Lee, Chapter One

I didn’t want to do it to her… but I did it. I read Chapter One of Nelle Harper Lee's new/old book. The chapter was released a few days ago by the Wall Street Journal, which is owned by News Corp, also the parent company of the book’s publisher, HarperCollins. I mean, whuddidyouthink? Sometimes a manuscript, in the hand of one man, is worse than a whiskey bottle in the hand of another.

I couldn’t help myself. On moral grounds, I didn’t preorder. Why not let our Lady of Letters go out in a more dignified fashion? But having taught TKAM many times, and not being able to count self-control among my virtues, I capitulated and read the first chapter.

And yes, it reads like the sophomoric fan fiction version of her more mature—and well edited—classic. It’s full of tired, easy phrases, stock portrayals and awkward tense construction—signs of a writing newby. But a sentence here and there hint at the sharp, brilliant writing in TKAM. And like seeing the hidden paint layers of a famous canvas, it’s fascinating. As for Atticus the racist—the fodder for much discussion on social media, largely by people who don’t seem to have read the book yet—that hasn’t come up in Chapter One. Perhaps it will offer a more unvarnished look at attitudes about race in the Jim Crow South among ‘progressive’ whites, than Atticus the hero. Lord knows we need more honest discussion.

I’ve been brought to tears by the poignancy and beauty of certain passages in To Kill a Mockingbird virtually every time I read them aloud to 8th graders, or they read them aloud to me. I’ve been stopped in my tracks over and over by a sentence, a paragraph, a description, a shift in point of view, thinking “How does she do that?” And yeah, each time I teach the book, I grapple afresh with how to tackle the sprinkling of anachronistic and offensive passages about race and gender and some problematic characterizations, without tamping down the deeply important message or the joy of the read. Harper Lee had a lot of it right, but she was a product of her time and place.

As for Watchman, everyone needs a good editor. Everyone needs time to develop as a writer. Our literary elders should be cared for, and their accomplishments honored and protected. Shame, shame, News Corp. Will I read the rest of it?  It might be a little like shootin’ a mockingbird.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

HOTEL DU LAC by Anita Brookner


What was contemporary fiction like before we packed everyone off to MFA factories to practice literary pyrotechnics?

The cottage I’m in this month has the best library of any of the scores of vacation houses I’ve rented in my life. I arrived with my usual crate of summer reads, and found I didn’t need any of them. (Hard-gotten--four titles by trading in seven entire crates of old books at The Strand, two via a half-price Groupon from Book Culture, and the rest purchased on my educator’s discount at the big bad B & N—why not take them home, save them for later, and read what’s here?)

Brookner was one of those writers I’d known about forever and never read. Hotel du Lac, which won the Booker Prize in 1986, is about an unassuming writer of romance novels who is packed off to a discreet Swiss hotel—yup, by a lake—retreat fashion, after committing some sort of indiscretion, which we’ll find out about in due time. I mean… who can resist that? Certainly not this former YA romance writer, currently in the summer 2015 middle-of-nowhere hideaway.

Raise your hand if you’re tired of showy sentences—impressive though they may be—that scream “Look at me,” and are written by writing school insiders with pretty faces, alluring authors’ bios and good jacket photos. Brookner was a pro before all that. Her prose is as understated as the heroine of this novel, but fiercely clever—funny, acerbic, and with just the right verb or adjective, just the right detail noted. And she’s a wonderful storyteller.

This is a great summer read!

Sunday, July 5, 2015

THE NEW JIM CROW by Michelle Alexander; QUIET by Susan Cain; A CONSTELLATION OF VITAL PHENOMENA by Anthony Marra; THE DUKE OF DECEPTION by Geoffrey Wolfe; DEPLOYMENT by Phil Klay; Lonely Planet Cambodia

Oh, dear. I haven’t updated my reading blog since January. Can’t remember what I was reading six months ago; going to have to chalk up a few lost titles. Last five I remember (plus LP Cambodia with the hopes that it’s the next adventure) are:

THE NEW JIM CROW by Michelle Alexander
A must read for anyone who cares about racial equity. Not so much for the sentences, though her writing is clear and cogent, but for the ideas and information. Do not miss.

QUIET: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
Again, this one is for the ideas and information, not the sentences. I read it to better understand the bf, a classic introvert, but wound up contemplating how to gauge the different ways people roll (not limited to introvert or extrovert), and how to give them what they need. As an educator and as someone who struggles with a big EQ learning curve, a deeply valuable read.

Absolutely beautifully written and constructed. I admit that the combination of not knowing much about Chechnya, plus the nonlinear structure made me feel lost and made the book hard work at first. But perseverance paid off. This is a gorgeous novel.

I’ve been selling his brother Tobias’ memoir, This Boy’s Life, to my friends and students for years. This one is just as good.  When the Wolfe brothers’ parents split up, Tobias went with mom and Geoffrey went with Dad. Tobias writes about life with her, Geoffrey life with him. Fascinating, funny, insightful.

Being touted as this generation’s The Things They Carried (one of my all-time favorites). Deployment is worth reading, but Klay is no Tim O’Brien. (I mean, who is?)

LP Cambodia.
Hit me up if you’ve been there and have suggestions.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

WE NEED NEW NAMES by NoViolet Bulawayo, US by David Nicholls, BAD FEMINIST by Roxane Gay

WE NEED NEW NAMES by NoViolet Bulawayo
Is there a handy moniker for the American immigrant coming of age novel? Maybe just the New American Novel. This one, which begins in Zimbabwe and ends in Michigan, is gorgeous. Rich, loose, nimble language; a spot-on portrait of what it feels like to be a kid—anywhere; and a keen look at what is lost and what is gained by signing up for the American Dream.

US by David Nicholls
The uncoupling of a marriage meets the European romp. Frothy, fun, some good laugh lines, wants to be poignant, but pretty superficial. Not as good as his One Day.

BAD FEMINIST by Roxane Gay
Awww... I wanted to love this collection. Gay is personable, and I'm with her in the opinion department. I'd like to have coffee with her and shoot the breeze. But I didn't find much that was new or revelatory in these essays, and the writing was ordinary. I'm sorry.