First Friday Post

Ah, summer. A time to slow down, and a time to catch up on some of the reading I’ve been planning to do all year. I have a big stack of books waiting for me, and I’m eager to get at them! This is the first of what I hope will be a summer long series of book and/or movie reviews, posted on Fridays.

I finished four books this week, all excellent:

The Pale of Settlement, by Margot Singer
This is a collection of linked short stories, that all have as their central character Susan, the American born daughter of Israeli immigrants. The stories span in time  from the 1982 war in Lebanon, through the suicide bombings of 2003, deftly weaving in current events with the personal history of Susan’s family, and exploring the connection between identity, family, and memory. Beautifully written, this is an excellent read.

Bone Worship, by Elizabeth Eslami
This fiction work centers around Jasmine Fahroodhi, the daughter of an Iranian father and an American mother. When Jasmine returns home after failing to graduate from college, her father launches a plan to arrange a marriage for her.   This is a coming of age story about one young woman’s search to discover who she is in this world, and her attempt to understand her enigmatic immigrant father.  The ending seemed a bit glossy to me, but I still found the book to be an easy and interesting read.

Like the Heart, the World, by Sage Cohen
I met Sage recently at a bridge and poetry walk, and was moved by hearing Sage read the title story from this poetry collection. These poems are divided into three  sections: New York, San Francisco, and Portland, corresponding to places Sage has lived. All the poems are rich in imagery, and intertwine self-reflection with accurate observations of the outside world. This is a poetry collection that can be read again and again.

Deer Drink the Moon, edited by Liz Nakazawa
Ooligan Press published this collection of Oregon poetry. The sections are divided by geographical regions: Coastal Range, Willamette Valley, Cascades, Eastern Cascade Slopes and Foothills, Blue Mountains, Klamath Mountains, and Northern    Basin and Range. There are many well known poets included in this collection,   such as William and Kim Stafford, Judith Barrington, Floyd Skloot, and newly named Oregon Poet Laureate Paulann Peterson, but these are by no means the only poets that are engaging. I found the collection well rounded, and discovered new local poets to keep my eye on. I also enjoyed getting a sense of other regions in Oregon, as I have rarely ventured outside Willamette Valley, Mt. Hood, and the coastal beaches.

Summer Writing Goals

I write haiku all the time. Really. And as I only submit a small fraction of them to Kukai, where better to post them than here? It also occurred to me that at least one of the bloggers I follow regularly, Erika Dreifus, of Practicing Writing, not only posts regularly, but also seems to post regular features on certain days. I like that idea.This inspired me to try something similar. Of course if I get too gung ho for starters, I will likely fizzle out.

So my small scale idea for this summer is to post haiku (or four and twenties) every Monday, continue to post my Poetic Asides poetry on Wednesdays, and post a book review/event recap/author interview, or at minimum a book/movie related post on Fridays. I’ll give this all summer to see how I like it, before re-evaluating. So in the spirit of “no better time than the present”, consider this yesterday’s post, and I’ll be right on track. 🙂

Yogic inversion
I in cat tilt
my cat
in repose

***

A Midsummer Night’s Scene
Moonlight spills over the water—
on the breeze
the song
of a thousand crickets

***

Saturday Market
marionberries and peaches and plums
oh my!

***

We Call it Home
Just a blue-green marble
on a track unseen
rolling endlessly
through space and time

Losing My Cool

This book review is cross-posted on Reading Local: Portland.

Reading Local Portland Review: “Losing My Cool” by Thomas Chatterton Williams

By: Cara Holman

[ Losing My Cool | Thomas Chatterton Williams | Penguin Press| $24.95 ]

Losing My Cool: How a Father’s Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-Hop Culture began as a 1000 word op-ed essay Williams had to write for a class assignment when he was in grad school at NYU. The only requirement was that he take a strong stand about something he felt passionate about. When the essay was later picked up by The Washington Post, it generated a lot of both positive and negative feedback. That’s when Williams knew that he had more to say on the topic, and this book ensued.

Originally intended as an essay against what Williams “saw as the debasement of black culture in the hip-hop era”, he discovered in the course of writing that it turned into something quite different. By the time he was finished with the book, he discovered that it had become more personal, a tribute to his father, and hence the subtitle of this book.

Williams grew up in to the suburban neighborhood of Fanwood, New Jersey, to a white mother and a black father. His family lived on the white side of town, where Williams immediately felt out of place. He began to identify early on with the hip-hop culture which he discovered on Black Entertainment Television (BET). The first half of the book describes Williams attempt as a teen, to emulate the lifestyle of the rappers he admired, with the goal of “keeping it real”. Williams describes the world in which he tried to fit into, as one with an emphasis of conforming, by dressing and acting a certain way, disrespecting women, and dumbing down not just speech, but aspirations.

Countering the effect of hip-hop culture was his father, whom he called Pappy, a highly educated man with an extensive library who named his younger son after the 18th century poet Thomas Chatterton. Pappy exerted a strong influence on the teenaged Williams, encouraging him to read, study for the SATs, and live up to his name. Eventually Williams earned himself a spot at Georgetown University, in Washington D.C., but it wasn’t until his sophomore year that he began to take school seriously, studying philosophy, and looking outside the narrow world he had boxed himself into. “For nineteen years,” he observes, “I had seldom ventured, mentally or physically, beyond the guarded borders of the only patria I really knew or cared for, which was the nation of hip-hop.”

Losing My Cool is all in one, a coming-of-age story, a tribute to a father who never gave up on his son, and a moralistic essay of why it’s so important for not just the black youth of our nation, but for any youth, not to be seduced by the destructive and debasing lifestyle glorified by rappers.

Dead End Gene Pool

My review of local author Wendy Burden’s recent release, Dead End Gene Pool, is now posted on Reading Local: Portland.  http://bit.ly/aONP5J This is a darkly humorous memoir, written by a descendant of the Vanderbilts. After reading this and the previous book I reviewed, Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen, by Jimmy McDonough,  http://bit.ly/bLJYdO I am more convinced than ever that it’s more fun to read about the rich and famous, than to be one of them!

In Six Words…

I always love a challenge. Lately, Reading Local: Portland has been putting up book titles on their Facebook page and asking for 6 word summaries. Brevity, that’s me, lol. 😉

Old Man and the Sea: “Man goes fishing– gets no fish.”

Gone With the Wind: “Scarlett changes her mind too late.”

The Great Gatsby: “Decadence and tragedy in East Egg.”

Tammy Wynette

Occasionally, I do book reviews for Reading Local: Portland. The latest book I reviewed was Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen, by local Portland author Jimmy McDonough. The review can be read at the Reading Local: Portland website: http://bit.ly/bLJYdO.

Mention Tammy Wynette’s name, and like me, you probably think of her most recognizable (and controversial) hit, Stand By Your Man, or of Hillary Clinton’s scathing comment about her in January 1992, while being interviewed about Bill Clinton’s extramarital affairs, on 60 Minutes: “I’m not sitting here, some little woman ‘standing by my man’ like Tammy Wynette,” Hillary said.

Whether you care for her music or not, you just have to admire someone like Tammy, who rose from poverty to make her way, against all obstacles, into the totally male dominated world of country music in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

A Self Review

The prompt  for the January  Write On! Online Challenge  was to write a review of something we’ve written. It was challenging indeed, to strike just the right balance between modesty and blowing my own horn.  In the end, I decided to approach it by pretending I was writing a review of someone else’s work. 🙂 I was thrilled to learn today that I won 2nd place (http://bit.ly/b1m4uY), for this review:

The Ten Best Things, in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Count Your Blessings (http://bit.ly/34wABN)

Category: Creative nonfiction

I stumbled across Cara Holman’s story The Ten Best Things in a volume of Chicken Soup for the Soul: Count Your Blessings. As a cancer survivor myself, I appreciated the forthrightness and honesty with which she presented the story of how a writing group she joined shortly after her cancer diagnosis helped her to deal with her treatment and aided in her emotional recovery.

A cancer diagnosis can be a frightening and isolating experience. Many studies have shown the value of support groups for cancer patients, and in The Ten Best Things, Cara recounts how joining a writing group for women cancer survivors functioned both as a support group for the “eight or so” women in it, and as a way to channel their creative energies into the process of healing. While Cara is quick to conclude that obviously no one would have chosen to have been diagnosed with cancer in the first place, she firmly believes that she and the women of her writing group are in a better place as a result of having to confront their own mortality, and reassess their priorities in life.

As I reflect upon the lesson of this story, I find myself in agreement with the sentiments expressed by this author, namely, that many of us cancer survivors have learned “to be kinder, more compassionate, more life-affirming people and never to forget how much we still have to be grateful for.” I found this story to be life-affirming, without ever becoming maudlin.

I would encourage readers who are interested in honest writings about surviving cancer, losing one’s parents, and just everyday stories about raising children, becoming a writer, and hitting midlife to check out some of Cara’s other equally engaging, and often humorous writings. A full list of her publications, both online and in print, can be found on her blog Prose Posies.

Book Review: The Wink of the Zenith

In my continuing series of book reviews with an Oregon connection, the following is a review of Floyd Skloot’s The Wink of the Zenith: The Shaping of a Writer’s Life. Read more of my reviews at Amazon.com: http://bit.ly/5C9RIL

5.0 out of 5 stars A Compelling Examination of “The Shaping of a Writer’s Life”, January 20, 2010

In The Wink of the Zenith, his fourth memoir, Floyd Skloot turns his focus on how his past shaped his life as a writer. Through a series of overlapping essays, arranged in roughly sequential order, Skloot reconstructs memories vividly in order to examine how the influences of his past turned him towards a writing life. In the chapters covering his childhood in Brooklyn, and later on Long Island, what emerges is a stark portrait of a lonely boy with a vivid imagination, who struggles to make sense of his father’s untimely death and his mother’s cruelty.

Through a baseball essay originally assigned by a teacher as punishment, and through his fascination with the world presented to him by the television set his family owned (the Zenith of the title), Skloot details how he came to discover the creative world of writing and how it functioned to provide him an escape from his troubled life.

Subsequent essays follow Skloot during his undergraduate years at Franklin and Marshall College, where under the mentorship of his advisor, he discovers Faulkner and embarks on a comprehensive study of the works of Hardy, and continue into his early years as a writer. The essays in the third part cover his adult years, as he copes simultaneously with his mother’s Alzheimer’s, and with cognitive changes in himself brought on after contracting a virus in his early forties that left him with neurological damage. It is a testament to Skloot’s writing skills that what emerges is an always compelling, sometimes humorous, sometimes poignant account of how he got where he is today as a writer.

The Wink of the Zenith was a 2009 Oregon Book Award Finalist in the category of creative nonfiction.