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.

Bridge and Poetry Walk

This recap is cross posted on Reading Local: Portland. Check out the great aerial photo of Portland’s bridges on RLP.

Event Recap: Bridge and Poetry Walk

It would be impossible to ask for nice weather than yesterday, for the first bridge walk of the 2010 season, led by Sharon Wood Wortman, author of The Portland Bridge Book, and leader of waterfront bridge walks for Portland Parks & Outdoor Recreation since 1991.

Assembling on the steps of the Northwest Natural Building (NW Second & Everett), we started our day by touring the Oregon Dept. of Transportation’s Traffic Management Operation Center. Webcams provide live feed from highways around the region, and on a good day (from the traffic standpoint), nothing out of the ordinary happens. But in case of an emergency, there is a control room equipped with a table where a bank of telephones pops up at the touch of a button, like something out of a James Bond film!

Then in the museum, Sharon gave us an abbreviated version of Bridges 101. We learned that there are three main types of bridges: suspension bridges (like the St. John’s Bridge), arch bridges (like the Fremont Bridge), and beam or truss bridges (the prevalent kind).And of the movable bridges, those also come in three flavors: vertical lift bridges, swing, and bascule.

Poet Sage Cohen then presented the first of our poetry moments, reading to us the title poem from her poetry book Like the Heart, the World. This dovetailed quite nicely with Judith Barrington’s Walking North, from the Oregon poetry anthology Deer Drink the Moon, edited by Liz Nakazawa. With that, we were ready to go out and face bridges. A short ride on MAX took us to our first bridge, the Morrison. Just as we arrived, we were able to witness the bridge being raised from above, and then a second time, as we toured the bascule pit. I will say that it was impressive (and not a little bit scary) to stand just feet away, and see the 940-ton counterweights lift the bridge!

We had another poetry moment, crowded there in the control tower of the Morrison, and then went out on the deck to see how many other bridges we could spy in the distance. Visible were the top of the Fremont, the Broadway, the Steel Bridge, the Burnside, the Morrison, the Hawthorne, and the OHSU sky bridge. There’s also the St. Johns, the BNSF Railway 5.1, and the Ross Island, but I’m not sure we could see them from where we were standing. Another ride on MAX took us to the Eastbank Esplanade, where we crossed back over the lower deck of the Steel Bridge, but not until after we got to see it lift as well.

More walking along the waterfront, more poetry, and a little demonstration of harmonic oscillation, as we all jumped in the air simultaneously on the pedestrian bridge leading to Union Station, eliciting a few strange looks from passerbys. To enhance the effect, Amtrak passed below us just at this juncture. Sitting on the steps on the other side, Sharon read us her poem, Supporting the Divine, while two volunteers demonstrated the principle of the cantilevered kiss.

This sadly is the last year Sharon will be offering the bridge walks, but you can still catch one of the three bridge walks (scroll down to “2010 Bridge Walks”) left this season. And there will be a PDX Bridge Festival running from July 24 – August 7 this summer, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Hawthorne Bridge. Finally, for all of you poets out there, Sage will present a free poetry workshop this Monday, June 7th from 11-12:30 at the Portland Chinese Gardens.

Salamander & Co. joined us to shoot a video of the walk, which hopefully will be available within the year.

Author Robin Oliveira at Powell’s

This recap is cross posted on Reading Local: Portland.

Event Recap: Robin Oliveira, “My Name is Mary Sutter” Author, Speaks at Powell’s Burnside Last Night

By: Cara Holman

[ My Name is Mary Sutter | Robin Oliveira | Viking | $26.95 ]

Friday night, Robin Oliveira spoke to a full room at Powell’s Burnside about her recently released debut novel, My Name is Mary Sutter. She described her novel as a family saga containing multiple love stories, including several love triangles, a story of the birth of modern medicine as a result of the Civil War, but most of all, the story of 20 year old Mary Sutter, “a preternaturally talented midwife”, who upon watching her father die a terrible death (before the story begins), decides she wants to become a doctor.

In real life, the first woman to be admitted to medical school was Elizabeth Blackwell, who in 1849 received a medical degree from Geneva Medical College in New York. But she was the exception, and at the time fictional character Mary Sutter was looking for a medical school, the choices open to women were slim. Oliveira described the state of medical knowledge before the Civil War. There were no nursing schools in America, physicians graduating from medical school often had never operated on a live patient, there were no IVs, no antibiotics, and the germ theory of Lister was still several years off.

Further, the development of the Minie ball for ammunition, which was deadlier than the musket ball, led to more serious injuries. Due to unsanitary field conditions and physicians not washing their hands between patients, twice as many soldiers in the Civil War died of disease as of battle wounds. Oliveira, a nurse from Seattle, traveled back to the east coast while she was writing this novel, to examine rare documents in the Library of Congress, regarding medical conditions of the day, as well as visiting Civil War sites including Gettysburg, to keep the novel factually accurate.

After reading from her novel, Oliveira then took questions from the audience. We learned that due to the Civil War, the state of medicine progressed much faster than it likely would have otherwise. When asked how long this novel took to research and write, Oliveira responded that she began the novel in 2002, but actually began teaching herself how to write 20 years ago, when her son (who was in the audience) was born. She attended the Vermont College of Fine Arts, receiving her MFA in 2006, and at that point, began rewriting her novel in earnest.

Oliveira said she had no idea until late in the writing process how things were going to end up, and that she had to “live with her characters for a long time” before making those decisions. When asked, she said she did not let her family read the book until she was finished writing it, so that they would not give her advice over the dinner table. She is working on a second historical fiction novel currently, saying only that the new subject matter is daunting, and will require a lot of research before she is ready to write it.

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!