Olio (Jess)

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 Fortunes (Davies)

Sometimes, awards lists can be predictable in the same way that the New York Times Book Review can be predictable. I mean, Meryl Streep needs another nomination as much as Stephen King needs a book review. At this point, you’re either a Stephen King fan or you’re not.

One of the many wonderful things about the Anisfield-Wolf book awards is that they generally introduce me to authors and titles I haven’t encountered before. Such was the case with Karan Mahahjan’s The Association of Small Bombs (tremendous book!) and such was the case, once again, with The Fortunes. First of all, I’ve never heard of Peter Ho Davies or any of hi

I was worried at first because the Table of Contents made it seem like this was really going to be 4 short stories. In a literal sense, if you think the book is about its characters, it is. And taken individually, they are all vivid and excellent. Taken together, though, complete with unifying themes, language, images, this is a novel about, to borrow from Celeste Ng’s blurb, “the Chinese American experience.”

It earns two of my highest compliments. The first is that I’ve not read anything like it before. The second is that I’d love to teach it. We could go in so many different directions with this novel, whether it’s historical, whether it’s Hollywood, whether it’s immigration, whether it’s living a hyphenated life, how form follows function, the evolution of symbols, who can tell what kind of jokes and on and on.

It’s honest, it’s funny, it’s anything but safe, it’s heartbreaking, it’s a world – which is everything a novel should be – especially an award winning one.


Peter Ho Davies

Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards

The Association of Small Bombs (Mahajan)

This Anisfield-Wolf award winner is absolutely stunning. From its riveting opening pages until the truth of its conclusion, Mahajan takes us through a stunning story of small bombs, both the ones used by terrorists and the ones encountered in everyday life. I think what’s new here is that Mahajan, as the perfectly designed cover demonstrates, connects the bombs in ways we rarely get access to, let alone appreciate. What’s also new and both bold and necessary is that Mahajan takes us inside the lives of these terrorists. He accomplishes the seemingly impossible task of making us, if not like them, then at least understand them, both on a personal and political level. It is in these sections that he asks the most difficult and urgent questions, and I hope Anisfield-Wolf plans to host some conversations about this book even before the author arrives. (You must know that sensation of having finished a book and looking around immediately thinking, “Who else has finished it? I must talk to someone about this book. Now!) And please don’t think that Mahajan lets anyone in this story elude his hard questions. There are no angels in India, either.

In my enthusiasm for the content of the book, I don’t want to neglect Mahajan’s writing. He has passages, some as short as a phrase and others as long as several pages, that are just breathtaking in their precision and use of language. Unless I am teaching a novel, I rarely read with a pencil in hand. This time I did and my annotations and exclamation points fill this book.

The only fault with this book is mine. I know so little about India. It is not necessary to have much background knowledge to immerse yourself in this book, but I would love a suggestion of something to read to give me that background knowledge so I can appreciate it on another level when I return to it.

the cover

Second reading:

I just read this again in preparation for my book club meeting. It holds up. If anything, it was better. I can’t even begin to imagine how Mahajan put this together. The web that is this book was even more remarkable this time. I hope to teach this one someday.

The Tsar of Love and Techno (Marra)

If an author’s first book has been successful, the second book always makes me nervous. Has it been rushed out to capitalize on the publicity? Was it, in fact, the failed first book?

And when the second book is a collection of short stories, I am extremely wary. Were these the stories with which the writer sought to establish himself (and failed to do so), but now rushed to print to capitalize on the success of the first book?

Marra’s novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, is amazing. Marra, Anisfield-Wolf award winner, combines tragedy and comedy in sentences that make you think he has access to a different alphabet.

This collection of stories affirms his greatness. There’s no sophomore slump here. These interrelated stories explore questions about memory, family and art with both poignancy and humor. When I finished “The Grozny Tourist Bureau,” I had to stop for a moment of silence in appreciation. It is one of the finest stories I’ve ever read.

After two amazing books, I am prepared to pay Marra the highest compliment I have. When his next book comes out, not only will all of my apprehensiveness be gone, I will buy it in hardback, an honor I bestow on only my favorite authors.

Heaven (Phillips)

This collection is not nearly as ambitious as its title suggests. These poems are well-crafted – sometimes they come across as wisps of poems – but that signal would always turn me back for a second, far richer reading, of the poem. The poems are sometimes about language, as in “To an Old Friend in Paris” –

The poem opening like an ear pressed

Against the cold clicking door of a safe.

Day comes to dark caves but darkness remains.

And the only way then to know a truth

Is to squint in its direction and poke.

Or in “Never Again Would Birds’ Song be the Same” –

We’d slept like the lines of a villanelle:

Apart, together, woven into one.

“The Menace,” though, is probably my favorite –


This Anisfield-Wolf award winner (http://www.anisfield-wolf.org/2016/04/meet-our-2016-winners/) has created a book to be treasured.



The Jazz Palace (Morris)

I have a soft spot for all things Chicago, and I enjoy period pieces and jazz, so I was very much looking forward to this book. And Morris has some writing flair. And she knows Chicago, and she has clearly done her research – about history, about jazz. And yet this does not add up to a very good book. It comes off as superficial – kind of cultural tourism. The characters end up being predictable types – the wise black man, the sexually precocious teenager, the gruff father who is truly misunderstood. I’m not sure why this book merited the Anisfield-Wolf book award. I don’t know how this book has challenged or opened minds about racism or cultural diversity. Perhaps I’ll figure it out on June 13th.





The Cultural Matrix: Understanding Black Youth (Patterson and Fosse, ed.)

Patterson, this year’s winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Lifetime Achievement Award (http://www.anisfield-wolf.org/), and Fosse have put together an outstanding collection of essays based on the goal implied by the title they gave the collection – how are we to understand black youth by understanding questions of culture?

Many of the contributors here ask powerful questions. One essay turns a familiar statement (why is there so much violence in certain neighborhoods?) on its head and asks – why isn’t there more violence? Others examine fundamental questions of culture and research efforts made to modify culture.

Though it takes some persistence, there’s a lot of thought-provoking material here. The problem is, who is going to read it? Other academics? The authors here do little to make their essays accessible to those who would benefit from them a great deal. There’s too much that self-referential and some of the pages of statistical analysis made my eyes glaze over.

Non-fiction is reaching a much wider audience these days because of its emphasis on narrative. Think Seabiscuit and The Warmth of Other Suns. Sociologists could take a lesson from them.

So get it and read it. Slowly. One essay at a time. And then come explain the statistics to me.