4. To Kill a Mockingbird

by Nelle Harper Lee

What can I say about a book that's been discussed by millions over the past half century? I'll just get personal.

This is yet another book I didn't read when it was assigned in school. It's easy to remember this because I didn't read any of the books assigned, in junior high or high school. I've made up for this lack of reading since and in many cases I am glad to have these first experiences as an adult. My adolescent resistance has merit.

To Kill a Mockingbird is one of those books that I enjoyed immensely over this past two weeks. Ironically, I read it along with my seventh graders, who were also reading it for the first time. They got a kick out of knowing that I knew about as much as they did each step of the way. Our discussions were great as we shared our insights as equals.

I am usually reluctant to call a thing an American masterpiece, but what the hell. In this case it fits. It is so beautifully written: the music of deep south dialects, the charge of intensely felt grief over a dying way of life, the layers stomach turning racism, the awakening eyes of a young girl, the shared pain of an economic depression, and the fantastic suspense surrounding rape, homicide... Christ it's got everything. Best part, though, are the kids and their innocent, loving obsession with the mysterious Boo Radley.

I highly recommend this book, even though everyone as probably read it when they were supposed to.

3. A Man Without a Country

by Kurt Vonnegut, absurdist

Like the folks over at Davids50, I enjoyed this little book of Vonnegut tidbits. But it felt like old territory for him. If you want to read his more powerful collections of essays and short pieces, try Palm Sunday (1981) and Wampeters, Foma and Grandfaloons (1974).

I liked it though.

2. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

by Sherman Alexie

I laughed my ass off a couple of times despite the tragedies of this adolescent's life.

Sherman Alexie, perhaps best known for his novels Reservation Blues and The Long Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, has an incredibly prolific career writing from the world of American Indians today. It's the today part of Indian life and identity that he has been trying to illuminate for us- that they are living, breathing people who exist in the same contemporary world as the rest of us.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is adolescent literature about a high school boy named Junior who is a budding cartoonist growing up on the Spokane Indian reservation. He is a misfit and because of that is picked on mercilessly by his peers on the res. Despite this he manages to maintain a long time friendship with the toughest, meanest kid his age. In mean junkyard dog mean.

With the help of a loser teacher at the reservation's high school, Junior comes to realize that he'll never succeed unless he finds his way off the reservation. So he gets himself into the nearest high school (50 miles one way) outside, which is in the all white town of Rearden. So he is shunned on the res for trying to be white and shunned in his new school for being Indian. And all he wants to do is form him own identity and be happy. You get the idea.

The story is told in Junior's very funny, very self loathing adolescent voice. Sherman Alexie's gift is a certain blend of funny and tragedy. He makes understanding human identity and Indian identity great stuff to think about.

I like his novels. But I love his poetry. It's got a straightforward, plain speaking quality... Oh, just read some:

Little Big Man

I got eyes, Jack, that can see
an ant moving along the horizon
can pull four bottles shattering
down from the sky and recognize
the eyes of a blind man

who told me once, The future is yours
and I believed him until he left me
without a campfire, without an axe
to chop down a tree and build myself
a chair, house, cold drink.

Jack, how much pain is thre
in the world? I think there's only one kind
and we all keep moving around it in circles
like clumsy pioneers, over the same ground
until the landscape becomes so familiar
we settle down and call it home.

Seems like everybody wants to be an Indian.
Why should you be any different, Jack?
Still, when you rub the red dirt off your pale nose
your little insanities vanish.
Listen: the proof is glass.
When an Indian looks through a window
it's like a mirror. When the Indian looks
into a mirror, it's like a window.

I know you have dreams, Jack. We all want
an acre of land, love, and a full stomach.
Without that, we couldn't listen to the wind
without anger. But I've been sitting in a cold room
watching stars through a hole in the roof.
That bright star to the north doesn't have a name
I know. Like everything else, it will break my heart.