Category Archives: Book Reviews

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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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Creative Juice #227

Topics serious and entertaining:

Review of Obama: An Intimate Portrait by Pete Souza

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Prior to 2008, I noticed young Senator Barack Obama and labeled him as someone with presidential potential, but I expected him to complete a few more terms in the Senate before he ran. In the 2008 and 2012 elections, I wanted so badly to vote for a Republican, but both John McCain and Mitch Romney ran very ugly campaigns. (Here in Arizona, McCain is something of a saint. I agree that he had many lovely qualities, but he slung a lot of muck in 2008 and acted like a crabby old man. To top it off, of all the talented women he could have chosen to be his running mate, he selected the ditziest woman in politics.) Obama, in contrast, conducted himself with great dignity; he won my votes.

Shortly before the 2020 election (I had already submitted my early ballot for Biden), MSNBC presented a special tv program about Pete Souza, who had been the chief official White House photographer during the Obama presidency. The show made me nostalgic for what the presidency had been under Obama. His eloquence as a speaker. His character. His warmth. A sharp contrast to the buffoon who, as I write this review, is trying to retain his power by any means possible, including inciting angry mobs to storm the Capitol. Immediately after the show aired, I ordered this book, so that I could savor what our country can be again, soon, hopefully.

Souza had unprecedented access to the White House. During the eight years of Obama’s presidency, Souza was a virtual fly on the wall all day, every day. He had the ability to make himself inobtrusive, unnoticeable. He took hundreds of candid photos of the President at work and at leisure, in addition to the official documentation of his presidential actions.

And what he captured was amazing. He recorded the stress of the job, the intensity of crises, the seriousness of the President’s focus. He also chronicled Obama’s tenderness toward his family and his staffer’s children, his sense of humor, and his kindness. The photographs and Souza’s recollections regarding them comprise an in-depth account of what the Presidency was like during Obama’s two terms.

I didn’t agree with every decision Barack Obama made as President, but I was always confident that his motivation was to try to do what would be best for our country and our world. He served the United States diligently, and I welcome the return of Joe Biden to White House to resume that legacy and undo the harm that’s been done in the interim.

Creative Juice #215

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Creative Juice #215

Oh, is it Friday already? So sorry I’m late!

Review of Draw Your Day by Samantha Dion Baker

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Review of Draw Your Day by Samantha Dion Baker

I love to look at art journals. For example, I love the blog Sketch Away, by Suhita Shirodkar, in which she records her days. I dream of being outside, pulling out my sketchbook, and drawing what I experience.

But I have no idea how to get started.

I don’t remember how I found out about Draw Your Day: An Inspiring Guide to Keeping a Sketch Journal by Samantha Dion Baker, but I immediately ordered it, and for the last week or so it’s the book I’ve brought with me to read at Greg’s doctor appointments and physical therapy.

It is, of course, illustrated with pages from Dion Baker’s own journals. I love her style.

She tells a little about her own life, and how she first started journaling, and how over time the artwork disappeared from her journals. She missed the drawing, and needed to purposely reinstate it into her life.

I really appreciate her discussion of tools. She explains the numbering system for pencils, which I really never understood before. She recommends certain brands of art supplies, some pricey and some not, and explains the reasons behind her choices.

But most of all, she explains how to make a sketch journal a part of your daily routine. She suggests multiple ways to use one, and leaves it up to you to come up with your best way to adopt the sketchbook habit. I love this book, and I can’t wait to make sketching a daily part of my life.

You can look at Samantha Dion Baker’s artwork on her Instagram page.

Creative Juice #190

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Creative Juice #190

Lots of fun, and one solemn thing: