Map to the Stars (Matejka)

Anisfield-Wolf award winner Adrian Matejka has produced another excellent book of poems. I chose the word ‘book’ deliberately. This is not a collection of poems, but it is, like The Big Smokea book. Generally, when I read poetry, I can read 2 or 3 poems at a time. If I read too many more, I can’t really give them the attention they deserve. This is not to say that Matejka’s poems don’t deserve careful attention; they do. It’s just that the book has such a narrative drive (see the transition between “Stardate 8705.29” and “Business as Usual” for an example) that I often had to remind myself to slow down.

Together, these poems tell a compelling coming-of-age story that involves a move to the suburbs (which means a move from Prince to Fleetwood Mac) and all that involves, notably the sometimes unspoken but always simmering issue of race. In “After the Stars,” Matejka reports that “Upward / mobility equals stars in every // thing” and that the persona’s new neighborhood has “One sedan per driveway / & one tree centering each & every yard.” But all is not idyllic in the suburbs. Matejka reminds us that “All of this dirt came from some / other dirt repeating itself & you stand on top / of its frozen remains, arms raised like the Y / in YMCA. Look at you now. You are high-fiving / yourself in the middle of a future strip mall.”

Throughout, “[t]he spacious myth of space” proves to be just that, a myth. There is a hope that “everyone looks the same / in a space suit” but they don’t. In “Outta Here Blacks,” Matejka notes that despite the move, some things didn’t change:

We were outside our chalk-outlined / piece of town like a bad pitch. // We were outlying that old spot // like perfectly spelled / gentrifications.

Still, there remains a somewhat empty hope for a fresh start. In the perfectly named “Record Keeper,” Matejka writes

& because nobody / hunts for dinner in the suburbs, we put down / our implements of half step & appetite, sidestep / the moon as it descends into a whole plateful / of charred thighs and wings. We collectivize / the back-in-the-days way as tenaciously as chicken / legs undress themselves at a cul-de-sac party, then raise the stripped bones to history. Out here, there / isn’t any, so history is whatever we want it to be.

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Hidden Figures: Young Readers’ Edition (Shetterly)

My school received a donation of enough copies of the book for both students and staff. We are going to hear the Anisfield-Wolf award winning author speak on Friday at Cleveland State University. The Young Readers’ edition is one of the better examples of the form that I’ve encountered. Shetterly successfully intertwines the stories of the four African-American women – Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden – against the backdrop of the Cold War, the Civil Rights movement, and the introduction of television. It is to her great credit that she is able to make the moments of space flight suspenseful even though the outcome is already known. There is a particularly lyrical section in the first chapter that sets the context for the experiences of these four remarkable women. I enjoyed the pictures included in the text and wished for more of them. And the explanations of the science and math were within my feeble reach in those subjects.

To reward myself, I watched the movie with my family. It was, in short, awful. Remarkably, Theodore Melfi, a white man who both co-wrote the screenplay and directed the movie (why?) managed to make it a story about Al Harrison (Kevin Costner, in full speech-making mode – Crash still loves making speeches). Melfi reduced the 4 women to 3 and maybe, maybe, the trio as main character made it hard to do much more than paint each woman as a stereotype. And I understand that you sometimes need outsider characters to show change, but for a story that was, by all accounts, a story about African-American women asserting themselves in a racist and sexist society, why does Harrison become the hero for tearing down the sign marking one bathroom being for one race only (a completely fictitious scene in a movie based on true events)? Granted, we do see the women doing math, though Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) has this awful line in response to a patronizing and sexist remark from a would be suitor: “So yes, they let women do things at NASA, Mr. Johnson. And it’s not because we wear skirts. It’s because we wear glasses.”  This is what they came up with for Johnson to articulate her intelligence and independence?!?!?!

Then there’s the troublesome nature, present in both the book and the movie, of exceptionalism. Is it possible to both applaud the telling of a purposely neglected story (though I wish, especially in the movie, that one of the women had been allowed to tell it) and to worry that the book and movie contribute to the narrative present in so many stories featuring people of color, narratives that are comforting to white people, that essentially can be boiled down to — If they can do it, why can’t you? (And therefore if you can’t, it must be due to some flaw in your character.)

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 –

http://grey-magazine.com/the-menace

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

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/rowan-ricardo-phillips

http://www.rowanricardophillips.com/