Archives for posts with tag: book reviews

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.

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

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.

It takes just a look at her stage directions to be reminded that Parks is one of our most original writers working today. She is experimenting – in both small and large ways – with the form of plays. Note the musical selections she includes at the back of the script.

This nod to the Odyssey, both in style (note the use of the chorus) and form (journey), is layered and thought-provoking. I also admire its deceptive simplicity. Not much is needed here in terms of staging and props, though the elements that are required are essential. Parks raises questions without belaboring them and leaves the reader / audience to infer parallels and connections. I am looking forward to seeing it.

Father Comes Home from the Wars @ the Goodman Theatre in Chicago

In this perfectly-titled novel, Umrigar presents a nuanced look at the challenges facing a couple whose son has died unexpectedly. In an attempt to revive their lives and marriage, they decide to accept a business opportunity in rural India. At this point, the story only becomes more layered and complex. What does it mean to be an American who runs a business in another country, a business that makes use of natural resources that once were used by the indigenous population. Labor troubles complicate their lives. But it is the presence of the child of their servants, a boy slightly older than the child they lost, that sends Frank Benton spiraling to places he never imagined.

For three-quarters of the book, I think everything is pretty much pitch perfect. Umrigar’s characterizations, from when Frank meets his eventual wife, to their friends and associates in India, to their families (notably Scott, Frank’s brother) are all dynamic and convincing. The decision that Frank makes, which sends the story careening towards its conclusion, is also believable, even Shakespearean in its ambition. And certainly unexpected things happen to ruin the best of plans, but the easily anticipated moments here (a soccer match, a visit from a friend’s relative) did not need to come as a surprise. Taken together, these last minute plot devices as well as an effort to humanize the father of the child Frank has ‘adopted,’ make the ending come off as somewhat forced. Umrigar has one more move to make, and it is a surprising and credible one – the kind of revelation that makes one long for a sequel.

I read about this during a recent trip to Maine, and I wanted to learn more. I thought, perhaps, there might even be a story in it, but Anita Shreve beat me to it. Still, it was an interesting piece of local history. Two firefighters got together to defend their vocational (and, in one case, perhaps familial) ancestors from accusations that they’d mishandled the fire and allowed it to become something larger than it needed to be.

Initially, I thought their profession tainted their efforts, but Daicy and Whitney make for fine historians as well. By using primary sources and pointing out the consistency of the contemporary accounts, they point to the numerous factors, both natural and man-made that caused this conflagration.

I was inspired by not just the pride of the firemen (both then and now), but also of the city during its efforts to rebuild, as well as the support of neighboring cities, as far away as Boston, who helped the city battle the fire and then recover.