The Big Smoke by Adrian Matejka

big smokeThe Big Smoke  by Adrian Matejka

A finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, this powerful poetry collection examines the life of Heavyweight Champion Jack Johnson, the first African American to achieve that title. The poems are persona poems, mostly in the voice of Johnson, some in free verse, some blank, and some that read like prose poems (but usually with line breaks).

Shadow boxing plays an important role in the poems, and shadows appear frequently. In “Shadow Boxing” (one of four poems in the book with that title), Johnson says, speaking to the shadow:

I want to gut-punch you
until your eyes come out
like you’ve seen a ghost

And in three other poems, all titled “The Shadow Knows,” Johnson’s shadow speaks back:

You’re not fooling me
by quoting Shakespeare,
Mr. Champion of the Negro
World. No matter how
carefully you enunciate,
Tiny was a slave
& the condition of the son
follows the condition
of the mother.

Other poems are in the voices of several of the women in Johnson’s life and reveal Johnson not just as a boxer but as a smart but violent man.

Most importantly, Johnson was a trailblazer, breaking down the color-barrier in his sport. It’s a fascinating study of an important figure in both 20th Century American athletics and race relations, and a compelling reading experience.

I had the pleasure of spending some time with Matejka at the Indiana Author Awards last October where he received the Regional Author Award.

Check out this interview with him conducted after the award ceremony:

2016 Reading: Phoning Home by Jacob M. Appel

phoninghomePhoning Home: Essays by Jacob M. Appel
The University of South Carolina Press, 2014

This is an excellent, entertaining, and provocative  short collection of essays by the prolific writer Jacob Appel. (Read my review of his most recent collection of short stories here: Miracles and Conundrums of the Secondary Planets.)

Roughly the first half of the book is about the author’s family. The title essay is about his own childhood, as is the essay that follows it. Then we have pieces that are about Appel’s colorful ancestors, although as with the best personal essays, these expand beyond the nominal subject. (For example, “Sudden Death–A Eulogy,” is about the death of Appel’s great-grandfather, but it’s also about some of the ethical questions associated with living longer lives. It’s also interesting to note that the great-grandfather’s death also makes its appearance, in a fictionalized form, the story “The Grand Concourse,” from the story collection mentioned above.) I found these essays extremely appealing.

The second half of the book includes more essays that deal with Appel’s professional life as a bioethicist–a physician and lawyer who addresses a wide range of ethical questions that are faced by the medical profession. These pieces also are personal–the author writes primarily about situations he has been faced with–and also expand to the general in important ways. As entertained as I was by the first half of the book, the second half had me on the edge of my seat. These essays address truly important questions: when a patient can opt out of treatment; what are the limits imposed on treating physicians to act in a patient’s interest; the danger of taking controversial positions and the greater danger of silencing those with whom we disagree.

These essays are exactly the kind that resonate for me. Personal and specific, yet raising larger, challenging issues.

2016 Reading: My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

lucybartonMy Name Is Lucy Barton: A Novel by Elizabeth Strout

I’m inclined to love anything Elizabeth Strout writes. She was one of my teachers in my MFA program and she was terrific in workshop, especially on the sentence level. So when I’m reading her work I can read closely, knowing that the language will not disappoint.

This novel is unusual. It’s a first person narrative in a voice that is conversational and somewhat unsure of itself, both of which are revealing of her character.

There’s much more to say, and I said it in my review that appears today in Best New Fiction: Review of My Name is Lucy Barton

2016 Reading: The Time of the Monkey, Rooster, and Dog by Charles A. Hobbie

hobbieForty years ago today, on January 5, 1976, I traveled from my parents’ home in Indianapolis to San Francisco to join the “staging” for my Peace Corps service. My group of new volunteers, which became known as K-37 (the 37th group to serve in Korea), would spend a few days there for last-minute evaluations, inoculations, and pre-service orientation, before flying to Korea to begin our intensive in-country training.

So it is more than fitting that today I am writing about Charles A. Hobbie’s memoir, The Time of the Monkey, Rooster, and Dog:A Peace Corps Volunteer’s Years in Korea. Chuck, as Hobbie is known to just about everyone associated with Peace Corps Korea in those days (he served as the Korea Desk Officer at Peace Corps when I was a volunteer), was a member of K-8 (or K-VIII, as it was labeled at the time), which arrived in Korea in 1969, more than six years before my group landed. But because his job (University English Education) was the same as mine, although in a different part of the country, I was fascinated by the book.

For one thing, the level of detail is remarkable. Chuck says he had access to many of the letters he wrote home from that time, so that explains a lot of it. I really regret that I could never come up with the same detailed account of my own experience. I didn’t keep a journal (or, rather, I did keep a spotty one, and even that disappeared long ago), I didn’t write home all that much, and I don’t know what might have happened to the letters I did write. So if I were to attempt a book like this, it would all be dependent on my faulty memory and fertile imagination (which is why I am a fiction writer).

So the great details allow me to relive my own experience to some extent. But I’m also fascinated by what was different about our years of service. Chuck’s group had four months of training, most of it in Hawaii, which meant that they already had a pretty good grounding in the Korean language before they ever saw Seoul. They had also bonded with each other. Our group also did some bonding, beginning in San Francisco and then during our in-country training in the city of Cheongju, but when we landed in Seoul we only knew a couple of words of Korean, and we were only beginning to get to know each other. Then, too, we only had two months of training, which meant for me that my level of Korean wasn’t as high as I would have liked when I finally landed in my assigned city of Jeonju. And Daegu (which I visited several times as a volunteer) was a much larger city than Jeonju, so the diversions available to us were somewhat different.

But so much of what Chuck writes about in this book is a shared experience. Learning how to get around the country on buses and trains, learning to love the food and the various kinds of local alcohol, learning to enjoy the people, my students, my colleagues, and my environment, finding productive ways to spend time during school vacations. It seems clear that for Chuck the first year of service was pretty difficult–that was also my experience–but the second year flew by too fast. Like Chuck, I also doubted whether I was really doing anyone any good by being there. And like Chuck, my subsequent career was drastically changed by the experience. And so on. It all seems so familiar.

Even our vacations were somewhat similar. Between my two years of service I traveled with a couple of other PCVs to Japan, covering much of the same territory Chuck did at the conclusion of his time in Korea. But after my two years, I spent several months traveling through Southeast Asia, a trip that Chuck took after his first year. (I envy his trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway, something I’ve always wanted to do.)

For anyone who has been a Peace Corps Volunteer in Korea (or anywhere else, I would imagine), this book will bring back lots of memories, probably good and bad both. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I can’t believe I began that journey so long ago.

2016 Reading: Continuum: New and Selected Poems by Mari Evans

continuumContinuum: New And Selected Poems, Revised Edition by Mari Evans

The poet and activist Mari Evans recently won a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Indianapolis Public Library Foundation, and I had the opportunity to meet her briefly prior to the awards dinner. A couple of weeks later I got a call from Evans, who had been given a copy of my book, What the Zhang Boys Know by the Foundation. She wanted to let me know how much she enjoyed and admired the book. I was thrilled to hear from her. What a kind and generous woman to actually read it and then let me know what she thought!

I confess that I had not heard of Evans before she received that award, but she has indeed had a distinguished career. Wanting to know more about her and her work, I picked up a copy of Continuum: New and Selected Poems. The first indication that this woman has a special talent is the announcement on the cover that the book includes a Foreword by Maya Angelou and an “Afterpoem” by Nikki Giovanni. From Angelou’s Foreword:

“Like any good People’s Poet, Evans is a sharp observer and an honest person. She sees all the people, all the time. Fortunately for us, she does not tell everything she knows. Just as fortunately for us, she is careful that all she does tell is the truth. The whole truth, the poetic truth. The truth for, about and to the people.”

Much of the book is about being black, especially being a black woman. An indicative poem is “I Am a Black Woman,” which begins:

I am a black woman
the music of my song
some sweet arpeggio of tears
is written in a minor key
and I
can be heard humming in the night
Can be heard
humming
in the night

She writes frequently about music and musicians (she’s also a musician and songwriter), about oppression, segregation, and bigotry, about Civil Rights and the Movement’s heroes and martyrs. As Angelou says in the Foreword, this is the whole truth.

For more about Evans and the Lifetime Achievement Award, watch this brief video.

2016 Reading: Faith Ed. by Linda K. Wertheimer

faithedFaith Ed: Teaching About Religion in an Age of Intolerance by Linda K. Wertheimer

I was acquainted with the author through a Facebook group, so I knew that she had published this book. I had no plans to read it, however, until a controversy erupted here in Augusta County, Virginia, over world religions class in a local high school. Having spent time on other religions, the course turned its attention to Islam, and one of the exercises including copying a bit of Arabic Islamic calligraphic art. The mother of one of the students went ballistic–she didn’t like it when she saw that it was Arabic and she really didn’t like it when she learned the words were from the Quran–and created a stir, calling meetings of other parents (held in a church, of course), complaining to the superintendent, demanding that the teacher be fired, etc. Some people in the area thought the mother went overboard but that the teacher had used poor judgment. My personal view is that the assignment was a good thing. The content–about Allah–was harmless and beside the point. We need to do everything we can to open the minds of kids in this area. They are so sheltered, and it is obvious that they and their parents are ignorant about the world beyond the county. One wonders–but can easily guess–where they get their information.

The incident brought Wertheimer’s book to mind, and in fact when it became national news she was asked by several news outlets to comment. So I got a copy, and am very glad that I read it. The book is a series of case studies, including the author’s own experience, about the teaching of religion in schools. The first one in the book, in a chapter called “Burkagate,” occurred in Lumberton, Texas, but is very similar to what happened right here. Other cases also involved teaching about Islam, but Wertheimer also addresses the issue of teaching Christianity in public schools.

It is a beautifully written, well-researched book that reinforces for me the need to expand the minds of Americans. We need more education about world religions and cultures, not less. I highly recommend this book.