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.


Between Riverside and Crazy (Guirgis)

This is a tremendous and timely play. Though some may see it as a response to current events regarding the police, I think that would be missing the point. It is not only more complicated than that about the police, it is much more nuanced play in general. There are elements on the surface and those underneath.  Rent control, the (mis)use of the ‘n’ word (I don’t want to spoil anything here), the power of belief, race and racism, etc..  And there’s a multi-layered issue about Jewish stereotypes that angered and entangled me. There are also classical elements here – fathers and their children. It comes as no surprise to me that it won the Pulitzer. But when I saw it at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago (check out this pretty cool preview), the last two scenes drove me crazy. Again, I don’t want to spoil anything, but I don’t know how you direct these two scenes without revealing a key stage direction. But maybe Guirgis doesn’t want it revealed? At Steppenwolf, the ending came off as kind of dream-like. Is that the goal? If so, then the previous scene seems not to work. We’ll see what happens Cleveland Playhouse’s upcoming production.


The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (Wright)

I’ve known of this well-regarded book for a long while, but I don’t think I was ready to read it. A visit to the 9/11 Museum finally prompted me. It is a very, very good book. Wright’s research is incredible.  To watch bin Laden’s transformation from a human being I could recognize to a deluded fanatic was both astonishing and understandable.

I had long heard that one of the United States’ problems was a lack of cooperation among various agencies. Until I read this book, I was willing to give them some slack. This was unprecedented. Who knows how many threats they have to sift through on a daily basis, etc.? But that forgiveness is all gone now. We knew things. We had information. The failure to share information because of rivalries, wrongly interpreted laws, and individual personalities is recounted here, and without necessarily blaming anyone, Wright points out numerous times when opportunities to capture or kill certain people were missed. This is not to say that 9/11 would not have happened, only to say that opportunities – major ones – were missed for largely petty reasons.

So if you’re ready, this, I think, is the book to read.


Ozone Journal (Balakian)

Since I am currently mired in the muck that is Middlemarch, I wanted to finish something to get going on a review. I found Balakian’s Black Dog of Fate incredible – vivid, personal, informative, engaging. It turns out he’s known more as a poet. In fact, this collection won the Pulitzer Prize. I didn’t really get into it. The title poem is a long one, and I don’t know, but I have a hard time sustaining my focus when I read long poems. I can read pages and pages of prose at a time. So broke up the long one, “Ozone Journal.” Consequently, while I enjoyed certain sections, I could never really capture the momentum of the whole piece.

A quick scan down the table of contents will reveal why this book comes off as kind of a travelogue, a catalogue of name and place-dropping. I liked “Joe Louis’s Fist,” but I also have a connection to Detroit. Balakian certainly has a way with a line (“The blue knifes the canyon”), but overall these poems left me a little empty.


The Sympathizer (Nguyen)

For a first novel, this is remarkable. It is well-written. Nguyen’s writing is dense. He does not miss any opportunity to take a jab at someone or something – no opportunity for cleverness is ignored. If he overwrites at times – and he does, many times – it’s forgivable. Writers are told not to leave anything behind for their next novel.

There’s just one problem. And it’s a big one. There’s nothing new here. No insights, no observations, no questions, nothing that I haven’t encountered elsewhere. Okay, there are two exceptions – both dealing with the motif of duality that dominates the book. The first adds the question of time to the question of place when it comes to those with one foot in two cultures. The second is Nguyen’s writing choice at the end of the novel to make it clear how this exploration of duality turns out.

A promising writer? Yes. A good book? Meh. Worthy of a Pulitzer? Nope.

Acts of Faith (Caputo)

As Nicholas Kristof works to keep South Sudan in the public’s eye, I coincidentally turned my attention to this novel, less because of the setting and more because I’d always heard good things about Caputo, and this one was the first I came across.

It is a multi-layered text. The only criticism I can offer is that it’s perhaps a bit too masculine. Even if that’s appropriate because that’s the world inhabited by those who do humanitarian aid work, the descriptions of the interactions between genders (including the sex scenes) are written from and informed by the male perspective.

Now back to the good stuff. The title gains more and more meaning as the admittedly long book (669). It is an act of faith to try to do what you perceive to be good the confused world Caputo presents. The characters struggle with trying to figure out what is right and to determine (at the same time) what is necessary. This only becomes more complicated when the question of profit is introduced, then the question of religion, and then love, and the question of individual situations vs. the greater good and the question of Africa, and so on.

Caputo’s insights, descriptions, and characterizations – together with his occasional majestic turn of the phrase (I underlined beautiful sentences on a regular basis) – and his ability to develop a range and balance of nuanced characters is just remarkable. It took me a while to warm to the book, but once Quinnette was introduced, things really took off. No one is fully good or fully bad. Everyone has motives.

I wondered a bit about the mystique ascribed to Africa. I kept waiting for a character to say, “Forget about it, Jake. It’s Africa.” But Caputo is not the first to make a place into a character; he’s not even the first to do that to Africa.

This book is epic, relevant, and provocative. We all have a certain kind of faith, no?





Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital (Fink)

The ndeasy thing to say about this book is that it is remarkable. I can’t even begin to imagine how Fink found the information necessary to put together this compelling narrative. There’s material here for two books – first, what happened during those five days at Memorial and then what happened as a consequence of decisions made during those five days. Even the Epilogue – a focus on what we have and have not learned about emergency preparation and procedures – could, itself, be the seeds of another book (and is certainly required reading for those who make policy. Though I am not overly reliant or impressed by awards, I am not at all surprised that this book was a National Book Critics Circle Award Winner and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

Fink wisely omits discussion of the human and natural causes of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation. That is not her subject. Instead, she focuses on what happened at one hospital (though there are useful peeks at what happened at others – they are present for the purposes of comparisons) and the decisions made by, well, that’s part of the problem – it’s unclear who made some of the decisions. But there were plenty of decisions made – by everyone from architects, to doctors and nurses, to helicopter pilots, to people sitting far away at corporate offices, but not too many – and this is part of Fink’s point – by patients and their advocates.

This book raises an incredible number of questions. How much time and money should be spent on emergency equipment, procedures, personnel and training that we hope to never use? Could we have really been ready for Hurricane Katrina (and Rita)? What can, realistically, be done to improve central issues like communication? How can procedures be streamlined so that significantly less time is spent on turf battles during a time of crisis? What is the best way to conduct triage at a time like this?

And then, afterwards, how can we evaluate and learn from such a disaster in order to improve our response the next time? To what extent should we judge (in a court of law) decisions made in such times – times that those of us outside the situation cannot possibly understand?

Someone (Eisenhower?) once said, “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” I think that applies here. Find good people – and there are plenty on display here – give them what they need (training, materials, checks & balances, etc.) and then get out of their way. Do I agree with every decision made during those 5 days? No, but I wasn’t there, so my judgment means little. The conduct of some the key players after those five days – including a doctor at the center of the situation – does deserve serious scrutiny. Decisions made ‘on the ground’ can be understood, if not always supported. I think we should have very little tolerance for pre-meditated efforts to alter the narrative, no matter whose interests those alterations serve.