Rec from a Friend: Citizen by Claudia Rankine

We are told not to judge books by their covers, though we inevitably do. This is precisely the metaphor Claudia Rankine invokes with the cover of Citizen. The hood of a grey hoodie, isolated from the its garment, shaped around a missing, invisible head, slightly pointy in the back, laid against a white background. This image encapsulates the whole premise of Citizen: the hoodie, that item of clothing so mundane and yet offensive it got Trayvon Martin killed; the symbol of blackness, of black resistance, shaped so it almost resembles the pointed hoods of the KKK, separated from its body, and surrounded by and understood in a white context. A black body invisible, fetishized, torn apart in a white world.

It’s an audacious move to place your book’s thesis, hidden in plain sight, right on the cover. Yet the cover of Citizen is hardly were Claudia Rankine’s audacity ends.

Rankine’s publisher has decided that the book’s genre is “poetry/essay.” Publishers like their neat genre categories and Rankine refuses to play by anybody’s rules but her own. Citizen is emphatically multimedia and multimodal. Its images span from the real to the surreal; it’s language draws from poetry, prose-poetry, narrative, and essay.

As a result, Rankine’s argument is all encompassing. Black life in a white hegemony functions in certain, patterned, doomed ways. The history of bad calls against Serena Williams on the tennis court. Being called pretty “for a black girl.” The media and government response to Hurricane Katrina. The names of the men and women killed by police. All of it is related, part the same problem. Citizen establishes a pattern of systematic, indifferent violence toward black bodies. By the end of her book, Rankine obliterates hope, hope that encounters between white people and black people can have a different outcome, a better outcome.

If there are depths to despair, 2018 has not yet found them. Citizen paints a hopeless world. If it is anything – and its unique multimodal composition emphatically states that it is something and something important — it must serve as a call to action. For white people to recognize their position in their environments. For white people to acknowledge others’ humanity and dignity in every moment in every day. For white people to check and to overcome their fear the dark.

Rankine is clear: it’s on us.


Coming Soon: Moneyball by Michael Lewis, American Slavery, American Freedom by Edmund Morgan, and Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur


Rec from a Friend: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Pick up The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern and prepare to be entranced.

Enter the circus to the smell of caramel apples and popcorn. Explore its many tents full of wonders with the circus’ illusionist, its fortune teller, its youngest members, twins, born on opening night. Discover the acrobats and the lion tamer, the circus standards, and the wilder wonders, a garden made of ice, a carousel whose animals move and run.

As fabulously imaginative as Morgenstern’s world is, her novel takes the reader behind the black and white striped curtain, to see the invention and workings of such an incredible display. The not-so-secret secret to its wonder is, indeed, magic.

Celia, the circus’ illusionist, and Marco, assistant to the circus’ creator, are bound in a competition of magical prowess and endurance. The circus is the venue for their ever expanding skill, creativity, and magical influence. To their mentors and masters, the only point of the circus is to win, at any cost. But Celia and Marco both find that they care: about the circus, about each other, about the performers and the people who have been inadvertently caught in the web of their own devising.

Magic in The Night Circus, thus, is both a blessing and a curse. Sure, shattered cups can be mended, wounds healed, gardens of ice created and maintained. But magic, and its limits, is also the force that has the potential to doom Celia and Marco, the thing they’ve created together, and the people they’ve come to care for.

In some ways, there is nothing remarkably inventive about The Night Circus. Two of the largest cultural phenomena of my lifetime undeniably have a monopoly on key tropes invoked in the novel: The Harry Potter saga’s ultimate argument is that love is magic and The Hunger Games popularized the kids-in-elaborate-competitions sub-genre.

Nevertheless, The Night Circus delights and enchants. Its non-linear narrative keeps the reader on their toes. Morgenstern depicts a stunningly imaginative world and peoples it with unique characters with distinctive wants and needs which bring them naturally and inevitably into conflict with others. Morgenstern’s components might not be wholly original, but she combines them skillfully to construct a truly wonderful novel, in all senses of that word.

The Night Circus doesn’t speak to major political and humanitarian conflicts. It doesn’t revolutionize the novel’s form or structure. It doesn’t innovate in any significant way. But The Night Circus does tell a good story and tells it damn well. And sometimes an old-fashioned good story is exactly what the heart and soul desires.


Coming SoonBrighten Rock by Graham Green, Citizen by Claudia Rankine, and American Slavery, American Freedom by Edmund Morgan

Perplexing Cruelty: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee

Confession: I don’t understand Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee. Yes, I have a fancy degree in English. Yes, I make my living teaching teenagers who to interpret literature. Nevertheless, the appeal and significance of Albee’s play is lost on me.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? involves two couples: new-to-town Nick and Honey are invited over by the long-married Martha and George after a college faculty soiree. What commences is three acts of bewildering belittling. All four characters are, at times, victim and perpetrator of this verbal warfare. Like glitter, hurt feelings are scattered liberally across the stage and never-ever go away.

None of this seems innovative or noteworthy, let alone interesting or dramatic. The play’s shortcomings appear more obvious than any supposed greatness.

Continue reading “Perplexing Cruelty: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee”

Rec from my Student(!): The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn

Teenagers don’t read very much anymore, so when a power-outage caused my student to pick up a book and liked it so much she brought it with her to school to read between classes, I had to read it.

The recommendation was not amiss.

The Woman in the Window is a feast of a thriller, the kind of book you can’t help but finish in an afternoon.

Continue reading “Rec from my Student(!): The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn”

Gems of Advice: The Triggering Town by Richard Hugo

The Triggering Town is a jewel thief’s paradise, with little gems and pearls of wisdom scattered on every page.

The Triggering Town makes me want to teach creative writing, to give my students another tool for expressing themselves, for playing with language, for conquering their fears and feelings of inadequacy.

The Triggering Town is selfless and vulnerable; its advice, which could have been kept proprietary – secrets of the teaching biz – freely and lovingly shared with the world.

The Triggering Town, like a knight attired in perfectly hand-crafted armor, beautiful in its attention to detail, but not too flashy, conquers doubt: my creative writing instincts have been beaten out of me with the rubber hose of academia, but maybe just maybe I am capable of writing and writing well.

Continue reading “Gems of Advice: The Triggering Town by Richard Hugo”

Coming-of-Age Done (Mostly) Right: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

If you’ve read one coming-of-age story, have you read them all?

Anxiety about family, friends, the future. Budding romance. Changing bodies. Coming-of-age novels can have an elementary, formulaic feel, like how the ABC’s always go to the same tune.

Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian has all of the necessary coming-of-age paraphernalia – high school cliques and sports, a first crush, a tough parental relationship — yet its feeling of authenticity sets in apart from the rest. Junior, a teenage Spokane American Indian, narrates and his voice is achingly earnest. There are problems on the rez – alcoholism, mainly – and there are problems with trying to escape the rez, like being branded a “traitor.” For the very first page, Junior is just a kid who draws cartoons and plays basketball and just wants a chance to avoid a future of poverty and alcohol abuse that seems circumscribed around him.

Continue reading “Coming-of-Age Done (Mostly) Right: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie”

Christmas Gift #3: Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters

Underground Airlines is scared of its own implications. It wants to say something profound; instead, it treads a line between mediocrity and tastelessness.

Ben H. Winter’s novel begins with the premise that the civil war never happened. Remember the controversy when the producers of HBO’s Game of Thrones announced a series with a similar premise? If not, Ta-Nehisi Coates articulates it well in this article.  In short, imagining modern slavery in the US is a scapegoat for actually considering the very real issues of racism, police brutality, and income inequality in our present moment. Racism is far from dead, so why do we need to consider a fantasy which dehumanizes people of color even further than they already are in our actual society?

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