Friday, February 26, 2010

Mexico City Noir edited by Paco Ignacio Taibo II

This almost never happens to me--I actually read a book that came out only a few weeks ago! Someone check my temperature and make sure I'm feeling okay!

This was a library impulse grab, one of my favorite things to do. It's a little hard to tell from the size of the cover to the left of this text, but when you see a skeleton in a wedding dress, it's hard not to just run up to the shelf, grab the book with both hands and shout MINE! shortly before getting banned from the library in question. I resisted the temptation to do so, but not by much.

Mexico City Noir is the latest in a series of short story books by Akashic Books, a small press that states on its website that they want "reverse-gentrification of the literary world." That's a philosophy I can get behind, and it's obvious in the sometimes course nature of the material in this book that they are not afraid to publish work that might not be considered "refined" enough for another publisher.

The stories themselves are set across the landscape of Mexico City, with a helpful map marked by dead bodies giving the location of each treacherous tale. Editor Taibo divides them up into three sections, "Above the Law" (exactly what you think), "Dead Men Walking" (not at all what you think), and "Suffocation City" (not quite what you think). He opens by talking about the worst possible aspects of Mexico City--corrupt police, rampant killings, and streets of crime--but then also mentions the best, such as being a city with more movie theaters than Paris. As with all major cities, Mexico City is a place of grand contradictions. And those that love the city, such as the folks contributing to this anthology, embrace their city, warts and all.

Those contradictions play out in this volume time and time again, right from the beginning of the collection. Eduardo Antonio Parra features a homeless man trying to make sense of his world as it collapses around him for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Benardo Fernandez's protagonist is a pillar of the community--and a ruthless killer. Myriam Laurini features a cop who can laugh at a literary pun but also shoves his gun in a suspect's mouth to get a fake confession. In the best story of the final third of the book, Victor Luis Gonzalez's narrator won't off the man that killed Kennedy but refuses to let a man who harms animals go unpunished.

These are writers creating very human characters. You immediately feel sympathy for people who are going to lose no matter what, like the homeless man in Parra's story. There's rage as powerful men like the actor in F.G. Haghenbeck's story (or even the writer who moves crime to another block in editor Taibo's contribution) get whatever they want because of their position in the social hierarchy. These may be fictional creations, living on on the printed page, but the concepts are very real--and not limited to a crime ridden city south of the US border.

I'm a very character-driven reader, so the contributors' ability to make people I could either believe in or relate to made this small (it's only about 170 pages) anthology work really well for me. Taibo definitely worked hard to ensure there was a solid overall quality to the stories. There were no stories I disliked, which is rare for me in a work like this. In addition, the voices of the authors are quite varied. Taibo mentions in his introduction that the writers use various styles, and that's definitely true.

Over the course of this collection, we have a broken narrative, a private eye procedural, a dying man's last few moments of thought, a GOTCHA story (my definition of this being a short story that takes a hard left turn in the final moments), a series of taped interviews, and even a back-and-forth style, to name just a few. Some of these are pretty experimental, too, and require the reader to take time to follow the story. For a small anthology like this to take those kinds of literary chances really impresses me (and makes me want to read more in this Noir series). After all, not only are almost half of the contributions written in a style I'd say was non-traditional, they are in translation to boot!

This is as good a place as any to compliment translator Achy Obejas, who does an amazing job bringing this sometimes challenging narratives into English while still retaining the quality of the material. "BANG!" in particular (by Juan Hernandez Luna) works very well despite the change in languages.

As I mentioned, this is one of those rare times where I liked every story, so I won't do what I normally would in an anthology review, highlight my favorites. If I had to pick the story I liked best, it would probably be Haghenbeck's "The Unsmiling Comedian" because it features a private investigator whose client is only just a bit better than the criminal foe. I'm a sucker for those kind of stories, and he nails the theme perfectly. I wouldn't mind reading more stories with the protagonist from this story in the future.

There's only one minor complaint that I do have and that's the level of swearing and gay slurs. I am not a prude by any nature, and I understand that sometimes you have to be vulgar, particularly in dark stories like these, but there were a few times where I felt it was just piling on. If you're sensitive to that sort of thing, be warned. However, there's so much good in this book that I was willing to overlook it. I really don't read a lot of new fiction--perhaps this is just a norm today that I don't know about?

Mexico City Noir is a winner on several levels for me. It's a quality anthology, it features crime stories, and it uses a variety of narrative styles, some of which are quite experimental in nature. I've found a new series of books to love and some new authors to explore. This is an early candidate for my "Favorites of 2010" list, and I definitely highly recommend it to those who like experimental fiction, short stories, or crime books. Those who like all three need to grab this book with both hands right away--and try not to shout MINE! while you're at it.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Teaching Books: Do I Really Have to Teach Reading? by Cris Tovani

[I'm not going to try to review the books I'm reading as part of my transition to becoming an educator. However, I do want to at least do summaries, both for myself and if anyone's interested. Consider these mini-reviews, if you will.]

Do I Really Have to Teach Reading? addresses the idea that many students are not prepared to be strong readers when they get into your classroom. They may be on different levels, barely able to read, or afraid of reading that which is more challenging than they are used to.

Tovani offers a set of strategies to fight this problem over the course of the book, with worksheets that a teacher can use in their own classroom. This includes things like a double-diary (taking parts of a reading and relating them back to their own life), using alternative materials for those who struggle with a traditional textbook, ensuring that you are always teaching what helps you meet your objective, and using group work to help students understand different approaches.

There is a strong focus on the fact that there is not a one size fits all solution. Depending on the type of reading, a different strategy may be needed. It's also important, according to Tovani, to make sure that you as the teacher are constantly monitoring what works and what doesn't. An activity that may have helped in the past grows stale over time.

The key for Tovari is getting students engaged in what they are reading, and to really think in their heads rather than just parroting the material. This is true even for when a test is involved. For her, this is the only way learning happens and it is the only way a student will get better at reading.

A final note--Tovari is big on using sticky notes to express your feelings on a book, not just writing in the margins or highlighting a passage. Gives the commenter more room and allows the teacher to review the notes and give them back to the class. A very interesting idea!

Ordinary People by Judith Guest

Ordinary People is the story of a young man who is returning to his life from a suicide attempt. His family is an upscale 1970s clan that firmly believes such things don't happen to them. Thus, while all parties involved want to return to normal, it's absolutely impossible, and trying only makes the issues worse

Our young man, Conrad, flounders all over the place until he meets a new therapist, Tyrone Berger. Dr. Berger wants Conrad to do what his family can't--face the issue that drove him to be suicidal in the first place.

While Conrad is told he must address the past in order to move into the future, his parents continue to pretend that nothing is wrong. Except that his father wants to cheat on a wife he may no longer love and his mother can't deal with the idea that she has no emotional attachment to her family.

This book could not have a more appropriate title. Everyone in the book is similar to anyone you might have met. They're all ordinary people, living lives that we all face, and in the end we either deal with the problems or we fall apart. That's Guest's lesson for the reader, and it's a good one.

As a book about how a family approaches their issues, this book is very we done. The reactions of the parents to Conrad feel natural based on their personalities. Conrad's school mates sound realistic (for a thirty year old book) and some of the issues he has to face--exams, his future, girls--are timeless. Dr. Berger is ahead of his time in relation to the material presented (mental illness) and it's nice to see that Guest feels his approach--while probably flawed by today's standards--is the right one.

Guest firmly rejects the idea of burying a family's problems as a relic of a past age. It's the age my parents lived in--one where things looked good on the outside but held demons on the inside that were forbidden to talk about with anyone who was not part of the inner circle. I'd be a fool o think that we have moved past that as a society, but I think we're better now than we were then.

In that respect, Ordinary People is a valuable tool for exposing the hypocrisy and damage that hiding things can do. I think we can all learn a lesson from this book in terms of truly expressing ourselves, even if it might cause some hurt in the short run. Even if the message is a bit dated, there's nothing wrong in having it reinforced.

Where this book has a problem, however, is that the family involved is anything but ordinary. They are definitely well-to-do. These are folks who golf and play tennis and can afford to go to Europe to run away from their troubles. It's hard for me to have sympathy for them because I cannot relate to them as people. I may understand the struggle a family has with mental illness in the family, but to really care, I need people who can't just run off to another country on vacation if they need a break. I want to care about Conrad, but I have a feeling his dad will get him a job somewhere if it comes to it, and that means my concern for him is diminished.

(Is this a bit classist of me? Probably. But I'm from a family of people who never could afford to stop looking over their shoulder, so I just can't relate to those whose idea of cutting back is less dinners at a five start restaurant.)

I also feel like things proceed just a bit too neatly. Plot elements work just a bit too neatly for my taste to get to Guest's desired conclusion. Conrad just eventually falls into Dr. Berger's line and then his life is better. I just don't see real life working like that, and since this is a book that's supposed to relate to real life, I found that to be a flaw I couldn't quite shake.

Ordinary People is not a book I'd normally read. I read this in one of my many failed attempts to be a part of a reading group. ( It's weird that while I read all the time, reading something someone else asks me to is sometimes really hard for me.) However, I can see its appeal, even if the work is definitely dated. Guest's characters are struggling to admit there's an elephant in the room, just like we all do. And just like the rest of us, how Guest presents this issue is flawed but she does the best that she can do. Overall, I think she does a pretty good job.

At this point, I think Ordinary People only has a limited appeal because the people portrayed are very much products of the time in which it was written. If you like books that deal with real problems, however, I'd give Ordinary People a try. It's definitely a relic, but a useful one, I think, for the right reader.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Teaching Books: What Great Teachers Do Differently by Todd Whitaker

[I'm not going to try to review the books I'm reading as part of my transition to becoming an educator. However, I do want to at least do summaries, both for myself and if anyone's interested. Consider these mini-reviews, if you will.]

Another book recommended by my former boss. Mr. Whitaker puts the focus on 14 areas that he feels a teacher can have an impact on in his or her classroom. Instead of stressing the negative, Whitaker talks about what the teacher personally can do to make things better. This includes shunning those who only are pessimistic/sarcastic in the faculty lounge and meetings, never letting students feel like you are negative, and approaching things from a constructive, rather than destructive perspective.

While acknowledging the challenges teachers face, Whitaker argues that looking internally rather than blaming externally, can lead to positive change. There is a strong sense of personal responsibility, from dealing with students and parents to setting expectations in the classroom. Approaching problems with a "how can I make this better for all" rather than "what can I do t make this easier on me" attitude is the key, Whitaker says, to being a great teacher.

Last point of note is Whitaker argues for teaching to the best and raising everyone up, rather than just teaching to average. He also mentions being careful not to single out students, even for good things.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Teaching Books: What's Worth Fighting for Out There by Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan

[I'm not going to try to review the books I'm reading as part of my transition to becoming an educator. However, I do want to at least do summaries, both for myself and if anyone's interested. Consider these mini-reviews, if you will.]

Recommended by my former boss, this book discusses the need for schools--and in particular, teachers and principals--to reach out into the community and partner with parents, students, and others to make education work. It argues that the more a school isolates itself, the harder it is to make sure that learning is happening, and the easier it is for outside sources to make decisions that ultimately do not help make teachers better or schools more effective.

There is a strong emphasis on making learning student-centered, bringing hope to those who need it, and refusing the idea of doing things just because that's the way it's always been done.

Part of a series of books by the same authors.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer

A long, long time ago, I started listening to this as an audio book and remembered wishing I'd have finished it. I took advantage of a business trip to read the hard copy I picked up a little while back.

Krakauer is best known for his work on outdoors books, and if this book is any indication I can see why. Turning his sights on America's best known home-grown religion, Krakauer weaves a modern story of incest, polygamy, and murder with the founding of the Mormon religion. The former is tightly linked to the latter, as Krakauer makes clear.

Mormonism, founded on the imagination of a dubious man with a large sexual appetite, Joseph Smith, has always had a violent history as it tried to find a niche in American society. Moving from New York to Missouri to its eventual home in Utah, the fledgling Mormon religion fought its neighbors constantly and used a patter of lies to stay alive. Only when it became obvious that it could not survive alone, Krakauer notes, does the Mormon faith try to mainstream itself.

But those roots of individuality that set the Mormons apart never left the religion permanently, and splinter groups try to carry on under the old ways. The trouble with a faith that allows you to talk directly to God is that anyone can get their own revelations.

This is where the murder case comes in. The perpetrators of the crime took to the extreme views of hard-line Mormonism and used them to exact revenge against a woman who scorned them and her infant. Similar tales pepper the pages of this book, as various self-proclaimed prophets use the voice of God to do terrible things to other people. Krakauer uses interviews, news reports, and historical sources to tell the stories, many of which would not reach outsider ears otherwise.

The modern murder case is by no means new. Krakauer goes back into time to show us the series of conflicts the Mormons had at almost every stop, with the largest being the Mountain Meadows Massacre, where Mormons, disguised as Native Americans, butchered a party bound for California and then scapegoated one member for the crime. As per usual, this was all done in the name of God, though clearly it was the act of selfish, evil men trying to hold on to their claims.

There's a song whose title I can't remember that talks about "do it in the name of Heaven" and that's very appropriate here. Smith adds polygamy to cover his adulterous affairs and starts getting revelations about those who oppose the idea, right down to his wife. Ron, the co-killer of the main murder story, gets all sorts of revelations telling him to "remove" those who oppose his decisions. Dreams telling people to get spiritual wives who can't even drive a car abound. It's sickening to read at points, and Krakauer is unflinching in his presentation. All in all, the history of the Mormon Church doesn't have a lot going for it.

But before you start to dismiss Mormonism as a crock, consider this--how many radical Christians twist the words of the Bible for their own ends and claim to hear god? Is Pat Robertson and his insane proclamations representative of protestants everywhere? Krakauer warns to be cautious before passing judgment, as the belief system of just about every religion can be seen as fanciful to those on the outside.

Krakauer brings up a further point on this score--Jesus, Buddha, and Mohammad have the advantage of starting their faiths before the age of extensive written records. Would they be just as derided if they started in the 19th Century, as Smith did?

This is not to say that Krakauer finds the Mormon origin story credible--it's pretty obvious he does not--but I appreciate how he takes care to remind people to be be careful how they are judging those who follow a different belief path from themselves.

In the end, Krakauer's book is a condemnation of all extremists in any religion. He just uses the mirror of a few radical Mormons to do it. This theme would be the same if he were writing about Jerry Fallwell or any other fundamentalist from any other sect. After all, is the desire of the Mormons to conceal their cloudy past any different from that of the Catholic Church?

What makes Mormons so fascinating, both to Krakauer and those on the outside, if its habits are not so far off from other religions? I think it's partly because of the way the religion is still evolving. We can't go back and see the meetings at Nicaea, but we can watch as a bigoted church opens its doors to African Americans. Flawed or not, it gives us a window into the ever-changing nature of faith. After all, millions join the Mormon church--it's one of the fastest growing sects. There has to be an appeal, and perhaps its the idea of structured individuality that appeals to so many and that keeps those harmed by the religion coming back for more.

It's also true, however, that that support of individual faith is exactly what causes Ron and Dan to kill, allows eighty year old men to take teenagers as brides, and puts those at odds with true believers right in the cross hairs. As with America's peculiar culture in general, the Mormon faith has limitless potential for both good and evil--it's all in how its used.

Maybe that's why we're drawn into learning more--by analyzing Mormons, we can analyze ourselves at a safe distance, whether it is about our faith, our independence or our capacity to harm.

If you are looking for a history of the Mormon church that is more than names and dates and gets into the heart of the matter, or if you like reading true crime stories, you'll find Under the Banner of Heaven to be a great fit. It may not be written on golden plates, but at least you don't have to read it out of a hat!

Stirring the Pot

I haven't done anything with this blog for awhile, partly because I haven't been reading a lot of what I like to jokingly refer to as "book books." I'm planning to change that here in 2010, so I wanted to let anyone who's still reading know that The Book Stew is back on the burner!

Look for some new content soon!