The Bloody Heirlooms of Slavery: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

On September 15, 2017, Jason Stockley, a white St. Louis police officer, was acquitted of shooting and killing Anthony Lamar Smith, a black man. The prosecution presented evidence that Stockley made premeditated comments about killing the man they were chasing and that he planted a gun in Smith’s car after the shooting. The white judge, somehow, did not find this evidence damning.

In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates recalls the death of a friend from Howard University, how Prince Jones was mistaken by the cops to be the drug dealer suspect they were looking for, despite not matching the height or weigh description, how he was chased out of Prince George County in Maryland to Northern Virginia, where he was shot and killed. The officer, a known liar, claimed Jones tried to run him over in his Jeep. The officer was hardly investigated and never charged. Continue reading

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Can’t Buy Love: A Woman of Means by Peter Taylor

The eponymous character in Peter Taylor’s A Woman of Means is Quint’s new step-mother, Ann. Used to boarding houses and his father’s nomadic bachelor life, Quint’s new step-mother creates a paradigm shift in his world: a permanent home full of 1920s old-money finery and a woman who he comes to view as his mother, no “step-” required.

Quint’s narration beautifully captures how what happens at school or work during the day can create bridges or mountain or rifts at home in the evening, how the various parts of our lives are truly interconnected. At 13, however, Quint misses much of the subtlety in his parent’s relationship: he loves his father, he loves his (step-)mother and they feel like a family to him. But Quint’s father has decidedly married up in the world, thrusting both of them into an unfamiliar world of household servants, debutant balls, and private schools. For Quint, these things are each a new adventure – he befriends the chauffeur Gus, marvels at his step-sister’s beautiful receptions, wins the award for best all-around boy at school. Quint doesn’t notice when his parents’ marriage first starts to crack and doesn’t really understand when he’s caught in the middle of it in full collapse. Continue reading

Progress or Preservation?: Coming into the Country by John McPhee

Thomas Jefferson doubled the size of the nation; Lewis & Clark explored this vast new territory; pioneers loaded their worldly goods into wagons and staked out new lives in unfamiliar lands. This is the classic narrative of America’s relationship with land, it’s ever expanding frontier. In Coming into the Country, John McPhee illuminates what is perhaps America’s true last frontier: Alaska. Among the glaciers, the tundra, the streams, and mountains of the 49th state, McPhee documents the culmination of one America’s greatest conflicts: do we value progress or preservation? Can we accommodate both? Continue reading

Summer to Fall; Canoe to Classroom

I spent half of the summer sleeping in a tent; the other half on a squeaky cot likely double my age. Working at sleep-away camp means a lot of things: jumping in the lake even on the chilly, rainy days, eating countless s’mores, routinely facing wind and whitecaps in a canoe, singing songs in the key of loud. Each night I would fall into bed – no matter whether my sheets or my sleeping bag – and find hardly an ounce of energy left.

At the start of the summer I set myself a goal: two books a month for June, July, and August. Though I brought a book on every trip and one sat by my bed at camp each night, I finished just one: John McPhee’s Coming into the Country, about the vast wilds of Alaska and the people who care for the land with strong and conflicting convictions. Its review (which will be posted in the next couple of days) is my coming out of the country, leaving the towering white pines and crystal clear lakes behind for a classroom and another group of young people to lead on a very different set of adventures.

Ole’ Southern Anxiety: A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor

Crack open a Flannery O’Connor short story and you’ll almost certainly find a couple of things. The rural south in the middle of the last century. Catholics and Protestants and Atheists. Believers and Non-Believers. An odd protagonist, who doesn’t quite fit in: a child fascinated by religion, a woman who runs her own farm, a man who is weak and plagued with nostalgia. In any other tale, O’Connor’s characters would be the sidekick or the comic relief. Here, they’re front and center.

In A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories, things are never totally what they seem. It is not the deception of a murder mystery in which the writer wields misdirection as a storytelling weapon, but a worldview in which apparent advantages are not so advantageous, in which violation and trickery are commonplace. Pay attention to the titles: they almost always refer to someone or something different than they first appear to. Continue reading

Bad Teacher, Bad Novel: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

Let the record state that Miss Jean Brodie (whether in her prime or not) is the worst kind of teacher. She keeps a math problem up on the board during the period when they’re supposed to be doing arithmetic. She tells her students to keep their books open on their desks, so it appears they’re doing history. Instead, she tells them stories of her life, particularly of her stirring romance with her perfect man in the marvelously orderly Mussolini-controlled Italy. This man, conveniently, tragically died in WWI, opening the door for two sort of love affairs with other male teachers. She chooses favorites, a group of girls acknowledged by the whole school as the “Brodie set.” She meets with them on weekends and treats them to the theater and outings on her dime. She tells her students to study on their own, so they’ll pass their end of year exams. And, despite all of this, the headmistress can never quite nail her on any fire-able crime. She deserves every scornful stare sent her way by the other teachers at the school who, presumably, are actually doing their jobs, however boring they may be to the Brodie girls. Continue reading

To Be Jewish and To Be American: Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth

Good luck identifying a protagonist in any of Philip Roth’s stories. The good are never fully good, or they don’t stay very good for very long. Good and bad? It’s all relative, to one another, to community, to circumstance. Roth writes characters with the best intentions and the biggest flaws, a recipe for delightfully surprising fiction. How can you, as a reader, not be endeared to his quirky, sincere characters? Once you’re wrapped around his finger, Roth sends you through the wringer, revealing previous blind spots and facing you and his characters with questions of ethics and morality, of right and wrong. The only thing definitively good is Roth’s writing, with its ear for how people talk and a knack for expressing how they think. Continue reading

Narrative History and “So What?”: Hiroshima by John Hersey

It began as a normal day in Hiroshima, till a blinding flash of light destroyed a city and killed thousands. The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are a singular moment in the history of warfare. Though armed conflict has, of course, changed and evolved in the 70 years since the end of WWII, nuclear weapons — and who does and doesn’t have them — still puts diplomats the world over on edge. John Hersey’s masterful narrative history Hiroshima illustrates why we care so much about nukes, even if another nuclear weapon is never detonated again. Continue reading

Linked Together: Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Whether you love it or hate it, Love Actually shows the connections between a group of ostensibly independent Londoners. Liam Neeson’s wife just died; Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman’s marriage is on the rocks; Hugh Grant is the Prime Minister and lusting after his assistant. Three separate, distinct stories. But Liam and Emma are old friends; Emma and Hugh are actually siblings. Each story in Love Actually connects to another.

Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway is Love Actually’s superior predecessor. In Woolf’s post-WWI London, a unified narrative voice swoops from the interiority of one character to another. How many thoughts do you have in a day? How many revelations? In a day, in a life, what stays the same?  In a day, in a life, what can change? Slowly? Suddenly? Though Woolf’s narrative voice is consistent, Mrs. Dalloway illustrates how different people and their perspectives are. Ultimately, though, that consistent voice demonstrates an interconnectedness that transcends our differences. Continue reading

Smirky Millennial Nihilism: Middletown by Will Eno

There are some things that are not meant to be recycled. Waxy cardboard milk cartons. Used paper plates. Our Town by Thornton Wilder.

Like a well-intentioned but intoxicated fraternity brother who puts the used paper plates in the recycling been where they do not belong, Will Eno in Middletown attempts to recycle Thornton Wilder’s 1938 classic for the urban millennial set.

It doesn’t work. Instead, Eno sucks the charm and generosity of Wilder’s Grover’s Corners, leaving Middletown’s Middletown a soulless place. Continue reading