Monthly Archives: January 2010

An Overlooked Classic

She did not have to tip back the shade of her little window to know that outside it was bright, because the sunshine had broken through the bright green of the shade and was glorifying every bit of her room.  And the air crawling in at the half-inch crack was like a feather, and it tickled her throat, it teased her lashes, it made her sit up in bed and stretch, and zip the dark green shade up to the very top of the window—and made her whisper, What, what, am I to do with all of this life?

—Gwendolyn Brooks, Maud Martha

In an interview for her new book (A Jury of Her Peers: Celebrating American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx), Elaine Showalter created a list of ten novels by women—one from each decade of the twentieth century—that deserve more attention.  Her pick for the 1950s is Maud Martha, the only novel written by renowned poet Gwendolyn Brooks.

Told in a series of 34 short vignettes (most only three or four pages in length), Maud Martha is the story of the childhood and young adult life of the title character (an African-American woman born in 1917):  the first days of school, the death of her grandmother, her first boyfriend, her marriage, a night at the movies with her husband, the small kitchenette apartment she shares with him, the birth of her daughter, the job she cannot keep if she wants to maintain her dignity.  With simple details and poetic language (not surprising for Brooks), this novel captures both the struggle and the beauty of Maud Martha’s life.

Showalter is right—this book deserves to be read and treasured.

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Posted by on January 24, 2010 in Novels


IM not LOL

Like Sarah Schmelling’s Ophelia Joined the Group Maidens Who Don’t Float, Twitterature (by Alexander Aciman and Emmett Rensin, two University of Chicago undergraduates) works to meld classic literature with twenty-first century technology.  The authors claim to preserve the insight, beauty, and wit of a few dozen world classics—while reducing each book to no more than 20 tweets by its main character.  HA!  What sounds like a fun premise devolves into little more than sex jokes, constantly coarse language, and some major errors where basic plot and character information is concerned.

I’m no Luddite, I’m no literary purist, and I’m not lacking a sense of humor (despite what you might hear).  But this interesting idea suffers from really disappointing execution.  Save your $12.

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Posted by on January 23, 2010 in Other Books


Only 340 Shopping Days until Christmas

I happened upon Tinsel: The Search for America’s Christmas Present during this past Christmas season.  Given that timing, how could I pass it up?

In this book, journalist Hank Stuever follows three families (all living in Plano, Texas, a suburb of Dallas that has rapidly grown to a population of 100,000 people) through their Christmas rituals in 2006.  The members of these families, though, could probably be citizens of just about any upwardly-mobile city or suburb in the United States.

Tammie, mainly a stay-at-home mother of two, spends the months of November and December decorating the McMansions of more than two dozen Plano residents.  (She earns almost $30,000 for doing so in 2006 alone.)  Though Christmas is a special season for her, she realizes that her seasonal business keeps her from spending much time with her husband or children.  (She routinely arrives home after the kids are in bed and sleeps for only three or four hours a night throughout the decorating season.)

Jeff and his wife Bridgette have the most impressive display of lights in the Plano area.  Cars line up for blocks to see the display (which is set to music), and a video clip of the couple’s light show has received more than two million hits on You-Tube.  Jeff’s obsession (a word Stuever never uses) with the computerized light show means that he and his wife will never travel to see family members on Christmas, as they have to be home to keep the show running.

Caroll, a single mother with a young daughter and a college-aged son still at home, finds herself spending much of her Christmas season working as a servant-leader in her megachurch.  Despite the hours of services and volunteer work, Caroll doesn’t always seem fulfilled.

Through these three families, Stuever examines the shopping, the spending, the decorating, the charity work, the traditions, the memories, and the fantasies of Christmas in America.  Stuever (with tongue planted firmly in cheek) admits to being a member of the “liberal media,” and his take on many elements of Christmas can feel cynical.  (That doesn’t mean that much of what he says isn’t true!)  Every once in a while, though, even he seems surprised and entranced by the magic of the holiday.

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Posted by on January 20, 2010 in Non-Fiction


To Reach the Clouds

1350 feet from the ground, 110 stories in the air, a cable only three-quarters of an inch thick stretches almost 200 feet across the void…

After reading the novel Let the Great World Spin, I wanted to learn more about Philippe Petit’s real-life tightrope walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center in 1974.  What could be better, then, than reading the story in Petit’s own words?  Man on Wire (originally published as To Reach the Clouds) is that story.

Petit describes the initial idea for his walk (conceived when he was only 18 years old),  the multiple clandestine trips to scout the roofs of the two towers, the preparation with a small group of co-conspirators, the rigging of the tightrope (under cover of darkness), and the early morning walk itself—a total of eight passes between the two towers.

Even though I knew that everything would work out for Petit, this was one of the most suspenseful books that I have read in some time.  When he first looked over the roof of the WTC, I couldn’t believe that he would even contemplate a tightrope walk at that height.  When some of his friends walked away from the project, I worried that he wouldn’t be able to continue.  When he hid under a tarp for hours on the night before the walk, I feared that the security guard would find him.  And when the rigging on the final tightrope was not exactly perfect (in fact, it was far from perfect), I held my breath in the hope that it would hold.

Filled with pages of amazing pictures from Petit’s “coup,” Man on Wire is a great book!  (And if you’re interested in Petit’s story, you can also check out an excellent documentary based on the book.)

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Posted by on January 11, 2010 in Non-Fiction


You Think Your Prom was Bad?

After reading Stephen King’s On Writing (a combination of memoir and writing manual) last month, I promised myself that I would get to a few of his novels.  I was particularly interested in reading his first novel, Carrie, since King discussed the creation of that book so prominently in On Writing.

So?  First, the book is much better than the movie.  I watched the 1976 Sissy Spacek/Piper Laurie movie last night, and it lacked so much of the character development found in the novel.  (I have read several interviews with King, and he has frequently discussed his dissatisfaction with movie versions of his work.  I don’t recall him talking specifically about Carrie, but I can see why King might be disappointed with the way his work is translated to the screen.)  Second, King is better than he often gets credit for.  Carrie isn’t just about blood (although there is plenty of that!) and a horrific prom night.  It’s about well-drawn characters, powerful imagery, and steadily-building suspense.

Most of all, though, I am struck by the way that Carrie is a book about bullying.  Maybe it’s just my perspective as a high school teacher, but it seems that (more than 35 years ago), King perfectly understood both the bullies and the bullied—and the terrible consequences that could result from high school as usual.

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Posted by on January 10, 2010 in Novels


Just the Sputter of a Lantern

Romanian-born author Herta Muller is the most recent recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature.  Her novel The Appointment is a slim yet dense (in a good way!) read.  Thanks to an unexpected snow day, I was able to curl up with this book and make my way through it in one afternoon.

The narrator of The Appointment is an unnamed young woman who works in a clothing factory in Romania during the Ceausescu regime.  She has been summoned to appear before Major Albu, a member of the secret police.  This is not her first summons by the government, though.  She was first called before Albu—under suspicion that she might be an enemy of the state—when she was caught slipping notes into pants manufactured in the factory.  The notes, placed in men’s pants bound for Italy, read “Marry me” (and included her name and address). 

As the novel opens, the narrator boards the tram for her lengthy trip to Albu’s office—she knows that she needs to arrive promptly at ten.  The entire novel unfolds as a series of memories or flashbacks while she rides the tram toward a meeting that she fears.  She reflects on her first marriage (largely unhappy from the start) to a military man, the good and bad times with her first husband’s family, the shameful history of her first husband’s father, the painful secrets of her own father (and the sudden death of her father), the lonely life of her widowed mother, the story of a small boy she remembers from the town’s bread factory, her life at the clothing factory, her relationship with her second husband, the suspicious people who seem to be watching her and her husband, and the loss of her close friend Lilli.

Through this one woman’s story, Muller conveys the weight of everyday life under an oppressive regime—life which, as the narrator’s grandfather says, “is just the farty sputter of a lantern, not even worth the bother of putting your shoes on.”  The feel-good read of the year?  No.  A thought-provoking book worth reading?  Absolutely.

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Posted by on January 9, 2010 in Novels


Prep School Initiation

Some of my students will have the privilege of a video conference with author Susan Fine this spring (thanks to our school librarian!), so I wanted to read some of her work before then.  Fine is the co-author of the non-fiction book Zen in the Art of the SAT, and her latest book is the young adult novel Initiation.

Fine formerly taught English in a New York City prep school, an experience that probably shaped Initiation.  The novel tells the story of Mauricio Londono, a freshman at New York’s prestigious St. Stephen’s School for Boys.  (If you have read the novel, you’ll understand the irony of the fact that I can’t place the tilde in Londono’s name in WordPress!)  Londono, who lives with his Cuban father and French mother in a modest apartment in New York, finds himself in a foreign world when he enters the halls of St. Stephen’s—a world of money, ritual, competition, drugs, and dishonesty.

For me, the first third of the novel was a little slow.  (I started the book and set it down a couple times to read other things.)  In the back half of the book, though, I found myself drawn in by a major episode.  I also had to remind myself occasionally that the main characters in the book are freshmen.  (I teach freshmen, and I’m not naive, but the behavior of these students sometimes felt more characteristic of juniors or seniors.  Fine certainly has experience as a teacher, too, so I trust that she is working from the reality that she knows.)

Young adult fiction often seems targeted to young women, but this book is probably a good addition to the genre for young men.

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Posted by on January 7, 2010 in Young Adult


Out of Africa

I picked up Uwem Akpan’s collection of short stories, Say You’re One of Them, shortly after it was published.  I read the first short story, but I got busy and put the book down after that.  I’m glad to say that I returned to the book over the holidays and finished it.

Though it’s billed as a collection of stories, Say You’re One of Them might be more accurately described as a collection of three short stories and two novellas.  All of the stories are set in contemporary Africa (though each story takes place in a different locale—Ethiopia, Nigeria, Rwanda), and the protagonists in all of the stories are children or teenagers.

In “An Ex-Mas Feast,” the main character is a teen boy who lives with his family on the street.  His family depends on his older sister (who sells herself on the streets) for survival; when that sister makes plans to leave the family, their entire existence is threatened. 

In “Fattening for Gabon” (one of the two long stories—and my favorite piece in the collection), a young boy and his younger sister move in with an uncle after both parents become sick with AIDS; it soon becomes clear to the reader (and eventually to the young boy) that the uncle plans to sell both of the children into slavery.  (And remember, this story is set in the modern world.) 

“What Language Is That?” (which, interestingly, Akpan tells using second person narration) looks at Christian-Muslim tensions through the fractured friendship of two schoolgirls. 

“Luxurious Hearses” (the other novella, which feels a little longer than it needs to be) is also set in the context of Christian-Muslim conflict.  This time the location is Nigeria, and the main character is a Muslim teen (Jubril) fleeing the north of the country on a bus full of Christians. 

The final story in the book, “Say You’re One of Them,” follows a girl and her younger brother, the children of a Hutu father and a Tutsi mother, through an unimaginable ordeal in war-torn Rwanda.  (Anyone who has seen Hotel Rwanda will quickly be pulled into this final story.) 

Taken together, these stories by Uwem Akpan (a Nigerian priest) reveal a variety of horrors—all the more disturbing because they afflict children.  Say You’re One of Them is not always an easy book to read, but it is a book worth reading.

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Posted by on January 5, 2010 in Short Stories


All the World on an August Morning

You know how you pick up a book because it’s getting a lot of good buzz (and has maybe earned a few awards), and you’re really looking forward to it, and then when you finally read the book it’s not as good as you expected?  That happened to me recently with Let the Great World Spin, the novel by Colum McCann that won the 2009 National Book Award and was selected as the Best Book of 2009 at

Set in New York City in August of 1974, this linked-stories-as-novel (a genre that’s starting to feel a little tired to me) is tied together by Philippe Petit’s death-defying high-wire walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center.  One character observes it from the ferry, one character reads about it in the newspaper, one character is a judge who finds Petit in his courtroom, one character is even a computer geek in California who calls a pay phone in New York to hear about it.  But this book is not really about Petit; it’s about the characters (young and old, black and white, Park Avenue and the Bronx) who inhabit the city on this day—an Irish priest living in a tenement and caring for the hookers working outside his building, the priest’s brother, a nurse from South America who falls in love with the priest, a mother and daughter who both work as prostitutes, a high-society woman who has lost her son in Vietnam, the varied members of the woman’s support group, a city judge who daily slogs through an overloaded system, two young artists who have abandoned the 1970s to live their own version of the 1920s.

I found myself really drawn into some of these stories.  The story of Claire—which tells of her lost son (a computer programmer killed in Vietnam), her somewhat difficult relationship with the other women in her group, and the solace she finds in the electricity flowing through her refrigerator—and the story of Gloria—which traces her early life in Missouri, her two marriages, her three sons killed in Vietnam, and the new life she finds at the end of the novel—were particularly engaging.  Others, though, just failed to catch fire for me (like the entire story of Corrigan, the priest, which seemed to drag—and it is the first story of the book) or felt too forced (like the relationship between Corrigan’s brother and the young artist Lara).

There are definitely a lot of beautiful moments in this book.  And the book is often about finding those moments of beauty in a world of sadness and garbage and disappointment.  (As one of the characters remarks, “The only thing worth grieving over . . . [is] that sometimes there [is] more beauty in this life than the world [can] bear.”  In the final story, another character says, “We stumble on, now, we drain the light from the dark, to make it last.”)  And there is definitely something haunting about the way that all of these stories revolve around an act of unforgettable human triumph above the twin towers in the Manhattan skyline.  So I get what the author is doing here.

Maybe my expectations were just too high.

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Posted by on January 3, 2010 in Novels


American-Born Fundamentalism

I traveled to visit family over the holidays, and I have become a big fan of audiobooks for long car trips!  For this trip, I listened to Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith.  (I read his Into the Wild, the story of Christopher McCandless’s fatal journey into the Alaskan wilderness, two summers ago.  I was impressed by the movie version, which I saw first, and I liked the book even better.  Big surprise, right?  So when I was prepping for this trip, I was pleased to discover that Under the Banner of Heaven was almost exactly the right length for the first half of my drive.)

Krakauer begins this book with the 1984 murders of Brenda Lafferty and her infant daughter, Erica.  The two were killed by Ron and Dan Lafferty, the eldest brothers of Brenda’s husband, who were members of the FDLS (an unsanctioned fundamentalist offshoot of the Mormon church).  Apparently, Ron blamed his sister-in-law (at least in part) for his divorce.  When Ron (a disaffected member of the Mormon church) became affiliated with the FDLS, he informed his wife that he planned to engage in the practice of plural marriages (a part of the Mormon church’s history and a tenant of the modern FDLS); his wife was less than enthused by the idea, and she fled the state with the couple’s children.  Dan, who actually committed the killings, did so when his brother convinced him that God had ordained the “removal” of his sister-in-law and her daughter.  (According to Ron, God spoke to him directly, ordering him to kill a total of four people.)

This is just a starting point for Krakauer, though.  As he did in Into the Wild, he jumps from one related topic to another.  (Some readers criticize this freewheeling, stream-of-consciousness, writing-by-association style of reportage, but it works for me.)  He splices together the story of these 1984 murders (and the punishment meted out to the two brothers) with a history of the Mormon church (from Joseph Smith to Brigham Young to Salt Lake City), the violence he finds in the history of that church (both by members of the church and against members of the church), the place of women in the history of that church (including the role of polygamy in the early church), the growing popularity of the Mormon faith in twenty-first century America, the fundamentalist/FDLS movement (which has been roundly rejected by the official Mormon church), the FDLS communities that still exist (and that still practice polygamy—and that allegedly force girls as young as 14 into plural marriages) in the United States, and some recent high-profile crimes committed by FDLS members.

Krakauer’s book has drawn some criticism for being anti-Mormon (and anti-religion), but I didn’t find that to be the case.  Krakauer never condemns the Mormon faith; he seems more interested in exploring the radical fringe of this faith (and how this fundamentalist group developed).  To do so necessitates an exploration of the mainstream religion’s origins and development.  (As Krakauer points out early in the book, all religions seem to breed fundamentalist extremists.  Why does this happen?  How?  Krakauer explores these questions by exploring the Mormon faith—both because, as he says in the afterword, one of his closest childhood friends was a Mormon and because the Mormon religion is the only major faith to develop in a time of recorded history.)

This book made a 350-mile drive (in the rain) pass amazingly quickly—after a time, the weather and the traffic all disappeared as Krakauer read.  I was completely drawn into the book, and I was fascinated by everything that I learned.

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Posted by on January 1, 2010 in Non-Fiction