I once read a review of a new Billy Collins collection that was written in the style of (and as a parody of) Collins’ style. It was a fair point. One could do the same thing with this collection. Strand is, to some extent, showing off, demonstrating a wry touch as he presents us less with poems than familiar props that are often found in poems. In one of his plays, Steve Martin wondered what would happen to certain people’s work if we detached the name from it. Would we still admire a Picasso if we didn’t know it was a Picasso? And I very much wondered that as I read this collection. If Strand wasn’t a Pulitzer Prize winner, would anyone have even noticed, much less published, much less applauded these poems?

I am pretty new to the spoken word world. But I started to look into it when I moved to Cleveland, and the name that kept coming up was Basheer Jones. Since I am used to reading poetry, I bought his book first, which I think was a mistake. I had a lucky opportunity to hear him before I finished the book. Once I did, then I had his delivery, cadences and passion in my head, the second half of the book really sprung to life.

I admire the energy, spirit and responsibility of these poems and of the man. He doesn’t seek to go somewhere else. He wants to stay in Cleveland and see what he can do. And these days, we can use everyone we can get.

The students loved his performance, and to see two students pass his book around under the desk like it was some kind of secret contraband was delightful. On another day, the same two students passed his book back and forth and read poems to each other.

So, listen first. . .

And then read. . .

I'll Speak for Change

I'll Speak for Change

Buy from Amazon

Life made the read aloud of this one a bit herky-jerky, but Riordan clearly has a knack. The stories are exciting, tense even. It helps that Riordan is not afraid to have characters die. The characters develop. His mythology is sound and his creativity seems to be endless. There’s a little more of a self-conscious cliff-hanger this time, but he has probably earned it by now.

On to #4, The Battle of the Labyrinth!


Less a novel than an extended monologue (I did wonder what it might be like to turn it into a stage play), Marai’s novel is incredibly atmospheric. An older General awaits a man he hasn’t seen in 41 years. There is a secret between this man, Konrad, and the General, that the General narrates for much of the novel. This encounter, they both know, will be their closing act. Everything, including them,their way of life and the fire that is meant to warm them throughout this one night, is dying.

Though the story is largely a monologue, it held me. The General has prepared for this night for 41 years. What does he have planned?

I do wonder if another structure might have served this story better. The events leading up to the fateful day and then a leap forward to the encounter? Like I said, it was a long monologue.

A good, but not great book.

I bought this book because one of its co-authors, Lawrence Grandpre, was a student of mine at Baltimore City College High School. I knew I’d read it at some point, but given the recent events in Baltimore, it seemed to beckon me from the bookshelf.

Together, Grandpre and Love have assembled a series of compelling and important essays about the structure and implications of white supremacy and anti-blackness, particularly how it pertains to political and economic infrastructure. They will attend to the symptoms, to be sure, but these two, part of the Leaders for a Beautiful Struggle, seek to get at root causes. They are asking questions that, they report, make those they are addressed to, uncomfortable. I admit that a few made me, a white teacher at a school with 100% students of color, uncomfortable.

But here, and in one other place, I had questions for the co-authors. My school is following in the tradition of experimenting on the poor. I know that historically and currently, the poor, particularly poor people of color, are easy marks for experimentation. My question is, though, isn’t it time for a new model of public education? The traditional model is definitely not serving the students of Cleveland.

As a child of a professional fund raiser, I probably know a bit more than the average bear about that industry. I found Love’s section on “The Non-Profit Industrial Complex in Baltimore” quite persuasive. The one element that I’d like to query is from page 135. Love explains that “[a]uditors and firms that do professional assessments (necessary for grant applications)  are expensive and benefit from providing their specialized services in the status quo.” That last part of the claim is left hanging. A quick glance at any recent relief effort would reveal the truth of Love’s statement later on the page that there exists “legalized corruption that allows people to profit off of our (that is black people’s) suffering.” But the throwaway line – “I would rather have to worry about rooting out corruption in a context where people who are of and from the communities being served have more access to resources” does not convince. Love and Grandpre frequently call for independent black institutions and their reasons for doing so make sense. They believe that blacks should not and do not NEED (the emphasis is theirs) whites. I would have liked to see an examination of how much the black community does to support this goal. No one is handing out money, or at least not much money, without strings. Public schools want federal money? They make their students take the tests. Museums want grants? They have to provide data. How much is the black community contributing to the efforts that Grandpre and Love support? What effort is being made to educate students to do the kind of grant-related work that they say grassroots organizations often cannot afford?

As you can see, I was quite engaged by this book. Together, Grandpre and Love make me hopeful for the future of Baltimore and of the country. If they ask me for money, I will give what I can with no strings attached. Between my slim knowledge of one of them and the book they just read, I will not only give them money, I will get out of their way (as I think they’d want and need me to).

One major suggestion, though. Before this book goes through (m)any more printings, please get it edited again. There are mistakes galore, particularly in the powerful section about the Towson debate coach.

Buy it here (http://www.lulu.com/us/en/shop/dayvon-love-and-lawrence-grandpre/the-black-book-reflections-from-the-baltimore-grassroots/paperback/product-21903575.html), not because you know one of the authors. Buy it because you need to read it and read it soon. It will, like all great writing, change the way you see and act in the world.




Why, you might ask, would an English teacher read something about how to teach math? The simple answer is that I am mentoring a young math teacher. He reached the point in the year, the one I always hope menthes will reach, when he turned to me and asked if there was any professional literature I could recommend. I did some research and came up with this. And I’m glad I did. I made a great choice!

First of all, Lockhart’s prose pops off the page, He’s funny, irreverent and, I think, right. The traditional math subjects (Algebra I, Trigonometry, etc.) are artificial, the traditional sequence of these subjects is random, and the traditional method of instruction is stultifying.

Lockhart wants us to see math as an art, as a subject for play. He also argues, in a manner that resonates with this English teacher, that we should hook them first, and then teach skills as needed in context.

He disdains the notion that we should make real world connections for our students. No balancing checkbooks in class for Mr. Lockhart. He wants us to notice patterns and ask questions, and then notice what numbers and the value we assign to them (two doesn’t know that it’s two; it just is) do to help us make sense of the world.

The book is energizing. When his efforts turn more practical in the second half of the book, I was eager to be engaged. I want to be in his class. I worry that he presumes two qualities – curiosity and persistence – that are not always present. But I think his response would be that if we taught math this way sooner, then those two qualities would develop, well, exponentially.

It is hard to explain Alarcon’s style, and I think he’d probably be okay with that. I’ve read this and Lost City Radio, and they are both in the neighborhood of allegories (about Peru?), but are grounded in the stories of nuanced and complex characters who often intersect with others by accident. This intersection, then, re-directs their life’s direction.

What’s especially interesting and appealing about this novel is the way Alarcon’s different time periods intersect as well. As soon as we seem to be getting close to someone or something, Alarcon pulls back, without even the mercy of some white space, and we are reminded of the narrator (whose identity and then purpose are gradually revealed).

There is political commentary at play here, in the story of the traveling theatre troupe, going near and far to put on The Idiot President, but I don’t know enough about Peru’s history to know whether it’s any more pointed than that. But theatre meets reality in one small province and Nelson, the protagonist, is forced to take on a very different role.

The ending is thought provoking. I don’t want to spoil it. The storyteller and the subject of the story meet and, somewhat abruptly, there is an understanding – a shift in power. I’d be interested to hear from others about their opinion of this ending.

I’ll go in search of War by Candlelight. You go in search of this one or Lost City Radio.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 218 other followers