Creating Something Out of Something

Speaking of mixed reviews, which I was last week when I posted about Steven Pinker’s new book, I’ve been meaning to post about Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes for a while now.  Everything I have read by Foer has immediately found a place on my favorite list, so when I heard he had a new book coming out, I put it on hold at the library right away.  I didn’t know much about it except that he was doing something “unusual” with it, which was to be expected.

Tree of Codes is easily the most unusual of his books.  The concept here is that Foer has taken one of his favorite books, Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz, and created a whole new story from within it.  As you might imagine, some people find this to be a brilliant way of showing rather than telling that the story is layered and there is much that we (readers & the characters in the book) don’t know.  Other people find it annoying and pretentious.  Here is a video about the concept:


It isn’t a completely new idea, though.  A couple of years ago, I ran across Nets by Jen Bervin in which Shakespeare’s sonnets are put through much the same process at Schulz’ novel to produce new poems.  I actually think it’s an interesting way to re-imagine the work.  Read an excerpt of Nets in Conjunctions to see what I mean.

I think that it works better as poetry than it does as a novel.  For me, the “erasure” format put a distance between myself (the reader) and the story.  It was hard to keep plot and characters straight, and I found myself wanting to wander through the book the way I would wander through a poem. The holes and spaces spoke as much as the words that were left, and I focused on the emotion and the language while the details of the story faded to the background.

That may read like a bad review, but it isn’t.  What was left was beautiful & interesting, and it makes me endlessly curious about the work from which it came.

I must confess, I was fascinated by this work.  Of course, Foer is a favorite of mine (as mentioned in this post), and I have also been long quasi-interested in cut-up poetry.  Perhaps I was predisposed to some sort of affection for this book.  Certainly that hasn’t been true for everyone.

Where have we been?

“You know where you’re going if you know where you come from.”

Michele Norris was talking about her book, The Grace of Silence, with Kerri Miller on MPR with the words above.  She spoke of how her parents, who were among the first African-American families in their South Minneapolis neighborhood in the 1940’s, passed on their hopes and dreams to their children instead of their angst.  This sounds lovely, but it also meant that there was much that didn’t get discussed in Norris’ family.  Her memoir, which I have yet to read, explores the un-talked-about aspects of her family, the way race has played a role in her family’s story, and the way the way we talk about race is changing.  I am excited to read the book, and I hope to join in the conversation around the book that is going on as part of the One Minneapolis One Read program.

I wrote some time ago about how we can use books like Let’s Talk About Race to open a discussion about diversity with kids, and this photograph of a display at a Hennepin County Library Branch shows that there are many books that bring alive African-American history for kids, including Show Way by Jacqueline Woodson.

You might also use All the Way to America by Dan Yaccarino or Grandpa Green by Lane Smith to share family history stories, and don’t forget to share your own mini-autobiography on the Hennepin County Library’s web site.  Your life in 50 characters or less.

Share your story with the community, and share it with your children.  This is how we determine where we are going to go from here.  The stories of our parents and grandparents may not be easy to talk or write about, but one of my favorite writers, Jonathan Safran foer, who took on a fictionalized version of his family history in his book Everything is Illuminated, offered this advice:

“I was always writing from a position of loving my family so I knew I couldn’t betray them. The worst that could happen was that the execution of my writing wouldn’t be as good as my intentions. So if you have good intentions — to be forthright and honest — you can’t really fail.”


Disclosure: I am not affiliated with MPR, Hennepin County Library, or One Minneapolis One Read. I have not (yet) read Michele Norris’ book. Amazon links are affiliate links. I may earn a percentage of purchases made through those links.