By Hanna Pylväinen
Holt, 189 pp., $23
Midway through Hanna Pylväinen’s spare, quietly devastating debut novel, a man tries to persuade his lover to leave her strict fundamentalist religion: “You know, the best thing about the church is your family, and the worst thing about your family is the church.” Each of the nine Rovaniemi siblings, brought up in a conservative Lutheran faith shared mostly by their fellow Finns, must contend with the twin pulls of family and faith, and Pylväinen sketches their struggles with a generous dose of empathy. For a teenaged Nels, a flirtation with his college classmate changes how he sees his church girlfriend, still in high school, with her “slightly infantile” outfits, “as if dressing like a more modest version of everyone else would keep them both the same and apart.”
Perhaps most impressive is Pylväinen’s portraits of the family’s father, constantly on the verge of anger and forever seeking forgiveness, and mother, Pirjo, whose faith is so certain she feels comfortable breaking the church’s rules. When Pirjo brings home a television so that she can view educational videos, the children are enraptured, staring “like third-world refugees,” one older sister thinks. They watch a movie about Lewis and Clark, an apt story for a family in which either choice — to leave the church, to stay in — represents a difficult, lonely journey.
DIVE DEEPER: Journeys with Moby-Dick
By George Cotkin
Oxford, 302 pp., paperback, $18.95
George Cotkin calls “Moby-Dick” “America’s novel, the text upon which the American artistic imagination is built and upon which it rises and falls.” In “Dive Deeper,” Cotkin explores, through more than 100 short essays, the contours of the book’s afterlife, its post-history as a cultural touchstone, from film to comics to advertising, painting to literature to politics. When Charlie Brown tells Snoopy that his book needs “a more powerful beginning,” the dog types out “Call me Ishmael.” The joke reveals just how deeply embedded Melville’s whale tale is — and how far it has come since its publication in 1851, when it was received as a messy and confusing book, not on par with Melville’s earlier seafaring tales. (The Boston Post review, excerpted among dozens, grumbles that the book is “not worth the money.”)
Still, as Cotkin points out, even at the time the book had its admirers, and by the 1920s critics found that it contained every important aesthetic, philosophical, and political theme they could imagine. Some of Cotkin’s most exhilarating chapters look at how gay critics (mostly during the treacherous, closeted 1950s) responded to Melville’s treatment of male friendship and love; he’s a similarly wise guide to interpretations of race in “Moby-Dick,” in which many see an allegory to antebellum America, violence-crazed and hell-bent. Mostly, the book works so well because it is both serious and seriously entertaining (much like its subject). As Cotkin points out, “[h]umor is the ballast that keeps afloat Melville’s ship of tragedy.” Luckily for those of us who love “Moby-Dick,” this new companion is as affable as it is smart.
SAVING THE SCHOOL: The True Story of a Principal, a Teacher, a Coach, a Bunch of Kids, and a Year in the Crosshairs of Education Reform
By Michael Brick
Penguin, 288 pp., $25.95
Those who scan the title may confuse it with yet another “how to save our schools” book — a fresh entry into the genre of prescriptive education reform. It is, instead, the polar opposite: a closely observed, vividly rendered narrative following one particular school as its principal, teachers, and students fight to keep the doors open in the face of No Child Left Behind. At John H. Reagan High School in East Austin, Texas, principal Anabel Garza sees her job as restoring the school’s place as a center of neighborhood community and pride. To do so, she must get a student population in which more than 80 percent are labeled economically disadvantaged and at-risk to meet the standardized test numbers that will keep Reagan from closure.
The book is a triumph, genuinely gripping and emotionally powerful. Brick’s disdain for the number-crunching, test-and-standards crowd is palpable — he argues that the politicization of school inequality has only led to more of the same: At top-scoring schools, everyone is rewarded, while “[a]t the low-scoring schools, everybody got a public shaming” — but the story he tells isn’t merely political; it’s deeply human. Against the bureaucratic nonsense of the state’s all-powerful tests, Garza employs a stronger force, asking her students to help her figure out “how can a school be affectionate,” how can it help kids who are “coming in already wounded.” In her insistence on showing her students love, Garza emerges as a real-life heroine as inspiring as any character in any other book this year.