Every once in a while, someone comes along – think Garrison Keillor, Richard Pryor, Spalding Gray – who defies any of our conventional notions of genre, so something has to be invented for them. Meet the newest member of the group – Tyehimba Jess.

Jess, who has won both the Pulitzer and the Anisfield-Wolf awards for poetry, has definitely written a book that contains pieces that seem like poetry, but even that term, as expansive as it is, seems limiting here. This book also contains artwork, posters, interviews, music (the Fisk Jubilee Singers) and history. This book is so full of life that even at over 200 pages, I never wanted it to end. Even Jess’ author notes are marvelous.

We meet Scott Joplin, Henry “Box” Brown and Booker T. Washington, among others. But I think the most memorable character is Wildfire and the account of her introduction to academic and community life at Oberlin and her brave and bold exit.

Like most great literature, Olio makes me want to read more (a biography of Scott Joplin Jess includes in his bibliography), see more (the sculpture of Edmonia Lewis) and listen more (I’ve been playing ragtime in my car since I started this book).

I can’t wait to hear him present his work in September, as a part of Cleveland’s Book Week.

Friday, September 8
Tyehimba Jess, 2017 Anisfield-Wolf Award Winner, poetry, Olio
5:30 p.m.
Karamu House

Anisfield-Wolf juror Rita Dove declared herself wowed by the “roller-coaster mélange” in Olio, Jess’ second book of poetry, which reclaims African-American voices from the Civil War to World War I. It also won a Pulitzer Prize. Jess will bring his work to life on stage at Karamu House.

In the mean time, there’s this performance of “Syncopated Sonnets.”

And here’s his site.

The top 10 list of 2016’s most challenged books came out, and I immediately seized on it as a reading list. The first one I found at home was this graphic novel which I found delightful. I’m a big theatre geek. The scene when Callie steps into her favorite book reminds me of what graphic novels can accomplish in ways that ordinary ones can’t. I think Telgemeier captures the awkward adolescent dating scene and language quite well. As for the gay characters and the kiss, they are presented in a manner that aligns with the book.

As for those who object to it (and the other 7 books on the list that are challenged because of issues related to sex and gender), get the (*&$ over it. These are good books. These are stories that need to be told; in fact, they are long overdue. Children need them. Don’t be afraid. They aren’t contagious. Read them and learn. Or don’t. Just don’t get in anyone else’s way.

I ordered this in time (I thought) for a trip to New York, but it didn’t arrive in time. Still, I like Lopate. And books about walking. And New York. So I read it anyway. And it’s good. In pieces. It’s just exhausting as a whole. I mean there’s a lot of waterfront. And Lopate knows a great deal and knows how to find other people who know even more. I liked the asides about history (including a tentative defense of Robert Moses) and public policy, but overall, the book was just too much. I think that if / when I return to the city, I will just re-read the relevant sections or even bring them with me.

This is a mammoth book of ideas. At times, it got too jargon-heavy, and I had trouble following it. Mostly, though, I found it inspiring. It’s nothing short of a call for a revolution, not just in schools but in society. McLaren, persuasively I think, argues that we cannot separate schools from society and that focusing only on schools is to address a symptom, not a cause. The main cause, McLaren asserts, is capitalism. McLaren seeks a transformation to socialism, one that may very well begin in the classroom.

McLaren bravely includes a journal he published as a young teacher, Cries from the Corridor, to demonstrate how he was once quite prone to the instincts of generally well-meaning teachers. Still, I wondered about the format here. It might have been nice to have his annotations on his younger self in the margins of this section.

I think it’s a book teachers should have on their shelves. As for the jargon-heavy parts, just treat them like Russian names in a novel, and, well, you won’t be far wrong.

a YouTube clip of McLaren

There is a lot to admire here. This novel reminds me of one long Robert Altman tracking shot. The whole book takes place over a very short period of time in a small, Western town. Warren is incredibly adept at giving weight to the small moments of the lives of regular people just trying to find their way through not only their present, but also their past and future  – all of this under the scrutiny of everyone knowing everyone else because of the size of the town. Warren gets inside the skin of a wide range of characters – teens, men, women – quite well. It’s definitely a slice-of-life story, so my instinct to try to draw something larger from it had to be stifled. I do know this. I look forward to finding her newer novel.

Warren’s site

The thing is, I like Saul Bellow. I od’d on him when I first encountered his work as a U of C student 25 or so years ago. I don’t want to re-read Henderson, the Rain King because I’ve turned one moment of that book into a profound experience in my life and I’m little worried that I don’t quite have the details right.

I am no slave to plot. I don’t need things to be linear. But as much as there’s a lot of great writing here, there’s no, well, story, certainly not enough of one to sustain 472 pages. A few things happen. Some of these things are less credible than others. Some things have happened in the past. But the book is mostly an excuse for Bellow to do some philosophical posturing by putting words in the mouth of Humboldt and Charlie (as well as a few others). These are not human beings; they are mouthpieces, male mouthpieces at that as Charlie, despite his age and appearance, spends a great deal of time with Renata, who comes off as quite the catch.

There are some human qualities to Charlie’s interactions with Humboldt’s wife as well as with his own brother. As a one-time Chicagoan, I enjoyed the look at the city, But again, there was not enough here to make this much more than one I had to push myself through for the sake of an upcoming book club meeting.

This novel-in-verse may have its origin in Grossman’s own life experience. Grossman’s youngest son died in the 2006 Israeli-Lebanon conflict. And this novel centers around parents who have lost a child and their attempt to “learn to separate memory from the pain” (175) by using words. As in To the End of the Land, these parents walk, sometimes in circles and sometimes with an idea of destination. It makes sense that the feelings can’t be contained. Until they can. Powerful, sad, and necessary. I wish I could see the play version.