Where the River Burned: Carl Stokes and the Struggle to Save Cleveland (Stradling and Stradling)

I loved this book! Taking as their starting point the first Earth Day in 1970, the brothers Stradling move back and forth in time to analyze the term of Mayor Stokes as he attempted to manage the transition of Cleveland from an industry city to a service city. One of the most compelling elements of this historical narrative is the notion of boundaries. Stokes himself breaks one by becoming the first black mayor of a major (though not as major as it once was) U.S. city. He quickly faces issues of water and air pollution. Whose problems are these? Who do they impact? Whose responsibility is it to fund necessary changes? These all become questions as Stokes and his administration navigate issues of city vs. suburbs, county vs. country, industry vs. environment, government department vs. government department, city vs. state, Cleveland vs. the country / world, downtown vs. neighborhood, industry vs. environment, and, inevitably, human beings vs. environment.

The book, especially the first half of it, made me think a lot about the word ‘environment.’ Consider its immediate connotations – trees, rivers, etc.. But what about the notion of an urban environment? Are abandoned and dilapidated houses an environmental problem? What about rats? For the first half of the book, I thought the Stradling brothers were making the link, but in the second half, they seem to divide the issue. Perhaps they were just following Stokes’ lead. It seems that late in his final term, Stokes began to wonder whether all of the attention given to issues like air and water pollution was coming at the expense of attention to the more immediate needs of neighborhoods like Hough, namely safe housing, jobs, and a decent living, well, environment.

I only had two minor quibbles with the book. First, there were not enough signals about time. I’m fine with them using Stokes’ time in office as a kind of hinge in Cleveland’s history, but I sometimes lost track of when in history they were discussing. And, while the issue of water pollution is central to this book, I’m not sure we needed all of the detail on the proposed solutions to the problem.


Fishing the Sloe-Black River (McCann)

I love McCann’s work. These  short stories are sharper than his more modern work, perhaps because of the form, perhaps because he was still finding his way. Either way, in the broad strokes that short stories often require, McCann presents evocative glimpses into the Irish, both in Ireland and in the United States. The images he conjures – a man throwing a bicycle tire into a river, another man wallpapering and wallpapering (and wallpapering) the inside of his house – are poignant and, in such a short space, assured and credible. A number of the stories revolve around those who work with people who are mentally challenged in some way (suggesting a previous job of McCann’s?), and he renders these characters as sensitive and active human beings.

“A Problem From Hell” : America and the Age of Genocide (Power)

This 500+ page book turned out to be a kind of job application for Power. She is now the US Ambassador to the United Nations. Her argument here is straightforward. From the Armendian genocide forward, America has, with one exception (Kosovo), largely opted to stand by (rather than stand up) when faced with the prospect, the first proofs, and the facts of genocide. (Genocide, I hadn’t realized, was a word that Raphael Lemkin – one of the few heroes of this piece – not only invented, but fought to have accepted and used.)

“Those,” George Santayana probably said, “who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Power demonstrates just how short America’s memory is. There are reasons; there are always reasons. Economic, short-term vs. long-term, political will, public pressure, etc.. But patterns emerge and, to Power’s credit, neither political party is favored here. Clinton, for example, dithers while Dole persists. Powell wants no part of humanitarian missions.

When history repeats itself, when do we get to call it systemic? What is it about our democracy that has caused us to stand by, to not even admit to bearing witness? Even in Turkey, we knew things in time, Power demonstrates; we just didn’t do anything. There were people who pushed, even people who betrayed the State Department code and went public; some resigned. Power is not painting the whole system with the same brush, but the end result is the same. America, as one of the so-called leaders of the world, especially after World War 2, has largely stood by. How come? Hindsight, I know, is 20/20. The details are different each time, but the result (save for Kosovo) is the same. Even in Turkey, we knew what was happening and allowed many, many people to die because their suffering was subordinate to our other interests.

When should we intervene? Does Vietnam hang over us still? Somalia certainly seems to. What is the soldier’s role? If we value something at home (say, freedom of speech), do we have an obligation to protect it elsewhere? Or is that just us arrogantly imposing our will on others? The conversation may change. It may be okay to intervene when one country invades another, but what about a nation’s sovereignty? When should we say, “You cannot treat your people this way”?

It’s may be old-fashioned, but Power argues for the United States’ moral responsibility, and I agree with that. King’s words are coming up a lot these days – “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” And it’s true. At the same time, I recognize that we have limited resources, that we have priorities, that we have a great many needs at home.

I do wonder if Power will ever take a closer look at the United Nations itself. Does she expect too much of it? Do we (as a country, as individuals)?

Almost Invisible (Strand)

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’ll Speak for Change (Jones)

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. . .


The Titan’s Curse (Riordan)

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!


Embers (Marai, translated by Janeway)

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.