Category Archives: Book Reviews

Creative Juice #346

Creative Juice #346

Let’s get those creative juices flowing this weekend! Lots of inspiration here.

Review of The Library of Afro Curiosities by Ran Walker

The Library of African Curiosities

I’ve recently become a fan of flash fiction (and have written some myself). I was intrigued by the premise of this volume of 100 100-word stories by Walker, author of 25 books and a creative writing instructor at Hampton University.

From reading The Library of Afro Curiosities, I learned that a 100-word story might not have a traditional story arc, with a beginning, a middle, and an ending. It might instead be a single incident; or it might be a realization, along with the backstory leading up to it. It might be a single sentence, as the story “Searching for Water Where It Never Rains” (which to me seems more like a prose poem than a story).

Some of the stories do not tie up neatly at the end, but leave the reader with an unresolved question. I like that; it’s a technique I’ve used in my own short-short fiction.

Every word counts in writing this short. Walker is good at putting together words loaded with extra value. Here are three phrases from the story “Wishing.” “. . . her Stan Smith Adidas white like lies . . . her soft lips tasted like the sweet syrup of purple popsicles on a Saturday in July.” “My mind was a wheel of fortune . . .” Again, Walker’s words hit me like poetry.

Despite the title, you don’t have to be Black to derive meaning and enjoyment from the book. Some characters make multiple appearances among the stories. I recommend this book to anyone who likes short fiction and/or wants to write it. It’s especially good for people with short attention spans or no time to read—you can read it all in a couple of sittings. Hey, this review is as long as three of the stories.

Creative Juice #341

Creative Juice #341

Lots of art in this group of articles.

  • Lovely quilts.
  • Interesting sculptures.
  • A daughter remembers her father.
  • Prize-winning photographs.
  • The Devil’s Ladder.
  • Habits that raise your general intelligence.
  • Life Advice from 20 different sources.
  • Workers who build multi-million dollar homes in Montana can’t afford to live within commuting distance, so they live in homeless shelters or in their cars until they can afford a little RV. Housing inequity is coming to your state, too. Maybe it’s already here.
  • Watercolor lettering. Smitha makes it look so easy. My past attempts have not turned out so great. I noticed in the video that she doesn’t obsess about each letter. She just paints it and goes on to the next. Maybe it’s her brush. Yes, I ordered it. We’ll see if it does the trick.
  • The fabulous Alice Hendon, who is the Admin for the tangle Facebook group I belong to, has a new book out, featuring artwork from members of the group. See the review here.
  • Artist Clare Youngs’ Instagram page.
  • I love Suhita Shirodkar’s sketches.

Review of The Politics Industry by Katherine M. Gehl and Michael E. Porter

The Politics Industry

I don’t usually post stuff of a political nature here, but this is important.

The last decade or so, I’ve been increasingly disillusioned by the way major candidates are chosen in United States national elections. It seems no one has a chance of winning unless he/she is the nominee of the Republican or the Democratic party. And also the party promotes not the best candidate, but the one who has the best chance of beating his/her opponent.

Before the 2016 election, the Republicans had a huge field of candidates, all of whom bowed out under pressure from the party to defer to Trump (although several would have made a better president). Similarly, in 2020, numerous candidates for the Democrats were weeded out to promote Biden (though some might have been more effective as chief executive).

It feels like we hardly get a choice. Most often, we’re stuck voting for the lesser evil of two unfavorite nominees.

And each new Congress, instead of implementing and improving legislation, repeals and replaces the work of the last Congress, or worse—produces gridlock and inaction.

We’re stuck. How do we get out of this rut?

In The Politics Industry, which was published in 2020, Gehl and Porter promote two innovations that they believe will improve out elections system. They call the book “a road map for breaking partisan gridlock and saving our democracy.”

The first innovation involves primaries and is called Final-Five Voting. Instead of voting for one of your party’s pool of candidates, what if you got to consider everyone who’s running, regardless of party affiliation? Lots of Americans vote for candidates as opposed to party, meaning that they choose the person whom they feel will have the most positive impact on our country, regardless of whether they are blue, red, green, or whatever. Final-Five primaries are non-partisan open primaries that send the top five finishers to the general election.

Final-Five Voting nullifies both the spoiler effect and the wasted-vote argument that discourage competitors from within the major parties and outside of them from running. Five slots ensure a broader slate of candidates, allowing candidates typically eliminated upstream in party primaries to make their case to the general electorate. The media is motivated to cover all five candidates with all-important “earned media” because each candidate has a potential impact on the outcome.

The second innovation involves the general election and is called Ranked-Choice Voting. One of the problems with our current system is that the winner often has less than 50% of the popular vote. In ranked choice voting, the candidate must pass the 50% threshold. How can that happen, especially with five names on the ballot? With five candidates, it’s more likely that you will see one whom you can wholeheartedly support.

Under Ranked-Choice Voting, when you cast your ballot, you rank the five candidates, indicating your first choice, second choice etc. After the polls close, the first-place votes are counted. If one candidate receives more than 50% of the first-place votes (a true majority), the election is over. If no candidate gets a true majority (50% + 1), the candidate in last place is eliminated. But the votes cast for the last-place candidate get transferred to the voters’ second-choice candidates. And so on until a true majority winner is chosen.

States have the power to set their own election policies. In 2018, Maine became the first state in to adopt Ranked-Choice Voting for national elections. Alaska adopted it in 2020 and employed it in the 2022 midterm elections. Several cities, such as Minneapolis and San Francisco, also use RCV for municipal elections.

Gehl and Porter predict that adoption of these two innovations will unlock “the forces of healthy competition in American politics to restore a system that fixes real problems in real people’s lives—more choice, more voice, better results.”

In The Politics Industry, Gehl and Porter discuss how the “duopoly” of our two-party system has in essence become a private industry devoted to eliminating fair competition for elected office. They talk about the two currencies of this industry, votes and money, and how they each manipulate the other.

The Politics Industry is well-written and well-notated. Gehl and Porter thoroughly discuss the problems of our present electoral system and give a history of American political innovations of the past. I won’t try to summarize the whole book, but I want to give you a few more nuggets to think about:

  • There are just six paragraphs in the Constitution about how the House and the Senate should work, but the House and the Senate rulebooks have multiple hundreds of pages each—and senators and congresspersons wrote them all.
  • Between 1985 and 2015, congressional committee staff who help research issues were cut by 35%, forcing Congress to rely on opportunistic suppliers of data, such as lobbyists.
  • Final-Five Voting increases the potential for innovative ideas to become part of the public debate.
  • A 2017 evaluation of seven US municipalities using RCV to elect city officials found that candidates focused on the issues of the campaign rather than on denigrating their opponents. (Wouldn’t that be a nice change for the US?)
  • There is no independent regulation of the politics industry.

I highly recommend The Politics Industry to every American citizen who is unhappy with the way our government operates. I leave you with one last quote from the book: “We citizens have the power to shift the nature of politics and shape the architecture of our democracy if we can create a widespread understanding of how our political system actually works and galvanize action accordingly.” Gehl and Porter have shown us in this book what ordinary citizens can do to accomplish this shift. Let’s get on with it.

Review of Visiting Her in Queens Is More Enlightening than a Month in a Monastery in Tibet by Michael Mark

Visiting Her In Queens

I enter a lot of poetry chapbook contests. (A chapbook is a small collection of poems, short stories, or essays, generally less than 40 pages.) I entered three chapbooks into the Rattle Chapbook Prize contest last year. I didn’t win.

This is one of the winning chapbooks. I almost don’t mind not winning, because this chapbook is really good. (If I had to lose, it’s an honor to lose to this one.) The poems center around the end of the poet’s mother’s life, including memories of the mother (Estelle) when she was younger, how she and her husband related to each other as they aged, and observing the strain of caregiving on his father.

As anyone knows who has witnessed the progression of Alzheimer’s, it is a cruel disease that robs the victim of her personality piece by piece, leaving a stranger in her place. The beauty of the poems in Visiting Her in Queens is that they convey with love the challenges of watching a loved one fade away. The poems capture the bitter-sweetness, the affection among the tears.

In the center of the book is a photograph—I’m not sure if it’s one picture cut in half, or two separate pictures that line up really well—of a couple whom I assume are the poet’s parents in middle age. The mother is doubled over with laughter; the father smiles at her. Their fondness for one another is palpable; they were married just short of 65 years.

My favorite poem in the book is “Losing My Parents in a Small CVS Drug Store” which describes his search with hilarity. One employee saw them reading greeting cards to one another. A customer saw them over by the adult diapers. A stock boy caught them in employees’ rest room, where they were admiring the hand soap pump. The surveillance camera caught them eating in the candy aisle. Finally the manager makes an announcement over the public address system: “Attention Michael’s parents—please report to checkout immediately without rushing too much. Your son trusts you and wants you to have your independence but he doesn’t want you to miss Jeopardy.”

Of course, not all the poems are funny. But they are touching. And they are varied. Some of the titles are “The Wish,” “Watching the Golden Gate Bridge Disappear,” “What My Father Heard the Rabbi Say at My Mother’s Funeral,” “Dancing with My Father at My Son’s Wedding,” and “Celebrating His 92nd Birthday the Year His Wife Dies.”

This book will be especially meaningful to senior citizens and to anyone who has been a caretaker. The Rattle Foundation sends out a different chapbook with each quarterly issue of their poetry journal. Copies of this book are also available on their website. It’s only $6.

Review of When the Light of the World was Subdued, our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry, edited by Joy Harjo


Joy Harjo is the current Poet Laureate of the United States. She started this project before she took on the office. (She has since edited a second such anthology.) She was ably assisted by associate editors, contributing editors, and regional advisors. It is a huge undertaking, gathering together the work of 161 poets, representing 100 indigenous nations (out of 573 federally recognized tribal nations), containing more than more than 240 poems. But there is so much more—commentary about native culture and history; bios of the individual poets. It took me a long time (eight months) to read the 425 pages, and I fully intend to reread it several more times.

The book is full of pain, but also tradition, spirituality, beauty, wonder, diversity, respect for nature, and even some humor. I learned a lot. The book deserves pondering. North American indigenous peoples have a long literary history. “The earliest recorded written by a Native person was composed as an elegy by ‘Eleazar,’ a senior at Harvard College in 1678,” but there was a rich oral tradition before then.

I didn’t obtain permissions to reprint any of these poems, but I have located online some of the ones that moved me. I include these links and videos below so you can determine if you might want to read this book yourself.

Jim Northrup, “Shrinking Away”:

M. Scott Momady, “The Delight Song of Tsoai-Talee

Layli Long Soldier, “38

Tanaya Winder, “The Milky Way Escapes My Mouth

Dian Million, “The Housing Poem

Joe Balaz, “Charlene

Sherman Alexie, “The Summer of Black Widows

Anita Endrezze, “The Wall

Gladys Cardiff, “To Frighten a Storm

Imaikalani Kalahele, “Make Rope

Nora Marks Dauenhauer, “How to Make Good Baked Salmon from the River,” introduced and read by Joy Harjo:

This book is an excellent resource for white people like me who want to explore the culture and history of the First Nations.

12 Websites that Promote African American Literature


It’s Black History Month. Want to learn about books written by African American authors? Here are a dozen websites devoted to Black Lit. Some of these have been inactive for an extended time, but the articles are still interesting (and who knows—if the bloggers see readers accessing their sites, maybe they’ll be motivated to add new content).

  • African Americans On the Move Book Club features new books and interviews their authors.
  • African Book Addict is written by a Ghanaian American woman who reviews books she’s read and shares new books she’s eagerly anticipating.
  • Brown Girl Reading has an Instagram thing going on for Black History Month called the #ReadSoulLit photo challenge where people post pictures of the books they’re reading.
  • Nenitraanna posts more reviews and other lifestyle content too.
  • Bookshy has a unique way of exploring African American literature.
  • Black and Bookish Blog celebrates Black literature and culture.
  • Urban Bookish blogs about contemporary urban fiction.
  • Literally Black reviews books by Black authors.
  • The Black Book Blog reviews books by diverse authors.
  • In addition to reviews, Black & Bookish also includes articles about writing, culture, and activism.
  • Book Girl Magic celebrates Black women through book reviews and a book club.
  • Mek Life reviews African American literature and also makes music and wellness recommendations.

Some of these blogs were culled from these articles:

Now it’s your turn. Where do you go to discover books by Black authors? Do you post reviews of Black Lit or interview African American authors? Share in the comments below.

Review of The Poets Laureate Anthology edited by Elizabeth Hun Schmidt

The Poets Laureate Anthology

I am so glad I own this book. I bought it ten years ago, and just got around to reading it.

I was already familiar with the work of Billy Collins, Robert Frost, and William Carlos Williams, and knew the names of several more of the poets laureate, but most of them were new to me.

The book is arranged starting with W.S. Merwin, who held the office in 2010 when the book was published, and working backward to Joseph Auslander, the original consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress (which the position was called until 1986). Each poet’s section begins with a quote about his or her work, then a short biography, and then some representative poems. One feature of the biographies is that they list prominent awards won by the poets. I will be collecting some of the books that won Pulitzers.

Much of the poetry in the anthology is of the caliber that I aspire to. Many poems delighted me with their images and wordplay. But some did not move me, and I confess that some I did not understand at all (probably my shortcoming, not the poets’). I liked the more recent poet laureates the best. Nevertheless, I intend to reread this 716-page book often. I suspect my enjoyment of it will increase with time.

I honestly don’t want to go to the trouble of obtaining permissions to reprint poems from the book; but here are links to some of my favorites:

The Poets Laureate Anthology is a great collection of poems. If you are a serious lover of American poetry, this book is a must for your shelf.

Review of The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp


I have seen this book more than once on lists of best books about creativity.

Now that I’ve read it, I can confirm that it is. In fact, it’s delightful.

Tharp is one of America’s best loved choreographers, with a long and illustrious career. If you don’t know her, take a peek at this short interview with her from a couple of years ago, in which she discusses a newer book she’s written on the importance of movement:

Yay! I get to read another book by her.

In The Creative Habit (subtitled Learn it and Use it for Life), she offers tools that will help the creative artist keep coming up with fresh ideas. She believes in rituals, and has processes by which she frees up her brain to come up with new things.

The book is beautifully formatted. It uses different colored inks and different sizes of type to keep the eye and the mind from getting lulled into inattention (at least, it did for me). At the end of each chapter is a group of exercises, printed on gray paper. I didn’t do every exercise, but I did mull them over and I can see how beneficial each would be to enhance a person’s creativity.

The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp

Tharp uses anecdotes from her own life and from those of creative geniuses throughout history, recent and long past, to illustrate happy (and not-so-happy) accidents that led to creative breakthroughs.        

If I were teaching a college-level class on creativity, The Creative Habit would be my textbook. It’s that good. In fact, I wish I had read this when I was still teaching elementary general music, although I did do some similar activities with my students.

Tharp cowrote the book with Mark Reiter, whose bio reads, “Mark Reiter has collaborated on eleven previous books. He is also a literary agent in Bronxville, New York.” I did not find much more about him online. (Apparently, he is quite humble.) I don’t know how much of The Creative Habit is actually his. I’d like to think the content is 99.9% Tharp’s, and that Reiter contributed some of the sparkle. I also suspect he’s a great agent for nonfiction authors.

The Creative Habit has earned a permanent spot on my bookshelf. I intend to reread it every couple of years.

Creative Juice #227

Creative Juice #227

Topics serious and entertaining: