Posts Tagged ‘book review’

Book Review: When you Learn the Alphabet by Kendra Allen

When You Learn the AlphabetWhen You Learn the Alphabet by Kendra Allen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Kendra Allen’s essay collection When You Learn the Alphabet is an important collection of essays on race in America. Allen writes in several forms, ranging from memoir, to lyric essay, to poetry. What I admire most about these essays is Allen’s willingness to examine her own humanity rather than analyzing society from an objective distance. In the essay “Polar Bear Express,”the narrator reveals that she lies to an old man on the bus to avoid a conversation and later regrets the missed opportunity. I’ve ridden Chicago busses and ignored this kind of conversation, so I can relate and find the honesty refreshing. Allen is often angry at the systematic injustices and microagressions (or just plain aggression) she witnesses in society, yet she also examines the roots of her anger, both in facing ever-present racism and in growing up in a family plagued by addiction (Aunt A), divorce, violence, and PTSD. There are no easy answers, and though I sometimes might disagree, Allen’s essays are always challenging and engaging. For instance, after reading her essay about a creative writing workshop, I would love to rshow Allen Anna Leahy’s Power and Identity in the Creative Writing Classroom: The Authority Project and question the instructor’s practice of reading student work aloud to the class. But I am also moved by Allen’s account of her reaction to hearing her white male instructor read the n-word aloud, rather than having her black male classmate read his own piece. Whether I ultimately agree about the politics of who can read this word, I gain by learning how Allen and her classmate experience this situation. The fact Allen exposes her own vulnerabilities allows this kind dialogue between narrator and reader and shows a level of maturity that is rare in a first collection.

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Book Review: Biloxi by Mary Miller

BiloxiBiloxi by Mary Miller

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Disclaimer: Mary Miller is my colleague in The W’s MFA program in Creative Writing. I’m a big fan of her work.

Biloxi is a hilarious read, though it’s not laugh-out-lout funny, outlandish, or bawdy. Mary Miller’s humor, to my mind, consists more of taking wry, sardonic pot shots at contemporary culture in a loving, even complicit way. Her novel is not driven by plot; instead it presents a complex character study. Louis McDonald, Jr., her rather clueless yet lovable main character, navigates a personal crisis after his divorce, and the point is not how well he succeeds or even how he learns or grows (though arguably, he does). The point is that we understand him and explore his world, a world Miller knows intimately, from its burger joints to its sad strip malls, beaches, and casinos. Or maybe the true main character is Layla, the dog, and we are like her, lapping up every tasty morsel, every slice of bologna Mary Miller tosses on the kitchen floor for us, occasionally nipping at a brother-in-law or running off only to return to our new home after awhile to see what other leftovers may be lying around. This novel is introspective and insightful, though it doesn’t offer easy answers as much as it offers a mirror onto the 21st-century, mid-American consumer culture we all inhabit, like it or not.

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Writing for New Media

Many things about The W’s new low-residency MFA in creative writing get me excited, especially communicating with prospective students, but lately the most exciting part has been putting together a fall schedule. That is still very much in flux and will depend on the needs and desires of the students who actually apply — as I’ve told our faculty, I have to have students for a class to make, and if we attract enough students, we’ll add classes to meet their needs. We have faculty lined up to teach fiction, poetry, and drama, so I’m excited to start teaching a new course in Writing for New Media.

This is a course that I proposed for the program because it seemed like it would fit a need. It will be cross-genre and will explore the way genres are adapting or can adapt in a new, electronic mode of production. I want to look at everything from e-books to hypertext and social media tools like Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, etc.  I want to explore how form changes or might adapt to the different media, and I want to look at how still photos and video can be used by authors, including short narrative films, poetry videos, book promo animations, and you name it: whatever writers are doing on the web might be part of this class!

The excitement I have is tempered just a little by the name I chose for the course, which is a bit of a compromise. I wish there were a better term for it than “New Media,” in other words. Some of what we discuss isn’t new at all (I might bring in some late-medieval emblems and talk about the use of image and poetry, for instance). And some of what we discuss will be obsolete within a few years (who knows how long Facebook or Instagram will last, for instance). Something newer will come along and everything will change or shift slightly. That’s one reason I do like the name, of course. Rather than naming what new media will entail, I leave it open to explore. But I do realize that it can lead to some confusion. I’ve had more than one person (prospective student or prospective faculty) ask what the class is about, and as I tell them, they usually get excited, too.

That’s in part because the course is meant to be one that encourages students to rethink genre and rethink how they will get their words out into the world. A genre-bending class can be very useful in any MFA. But the other part of the class that is exciting to me is that I want it to be as much about how writers make a name for themselves, how we “brand” ourselves, as it is about creating “great literature.” As I think about it, I’d like to include practical discussions of the marketplace in any graduate workshop, regardless of genre. But in Writing for New Media, I want to look at all writing on the same level, whether it is a poetry video or a book review blog or a book or reading promo animation. All can be creative means of expression, and all can lead to opportunities to publish. Some will be paid or will lead to paying gigs. A book promo could lead to other advertising jobs, maybe for non-profits or hip local companies.

I wanted to offer Writing for New Media this fall for a couple of reasons. One is that I want to figure out exactly what it will entail by teaching it once (even though I expect it to be the kind of class that never remains static but always evolves). Another reason to offer it is that I think it can be an exciting class for all of our students, regardless of their primary genre (if they have one). I’ve begun collecting resources on different kinds of media that are out there, and I’ll ask students to take an active role in finding the kinds of new media they are interested in. I especially like a class where the students teach me as much as I teach them (isn’t that always the goal), and I’m willing to make this class a very open format in that regard. It should be a great way to start our new program, and if all or most of our students end up taking the class, it will provide a good common experience for the inaugural class as well.

Book Review: Sympathetic Magic by Amy Fleury

Sympathetic MagicSympathetic Magic by Amy Fleury

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As the title poem announces, “Sometimes what is needed comes to hand.” These poems are both needed and close at hand. Amy Fleury’s voice is never overly intellectual, never too familiar. These poems are calm and contemplative, yet they bring necessary images to life, whether it is through the exploration of minutiae from a Kansas landscape like the “First Morel” or the touching encounter between father and daughter in “Ablution” or the perception of nuns and saints in their “Niches.” It is great to see a poet who vacillates so dexterously between intensely personal poems and poems of complete objectivity. Read these poems whether you are in “the waters of loving” or “the sump of loss” or somewhere between. They will do you good.

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Book Review: The Secret of Magic, Deborah Johnson

The Secret of MagicThe Secret of Magic by Deborah Johnson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Secret of Magic is a thoroughly enjoyable read. Inspired by a true case of a WWII serviceman who was singled out and arrested on a bus in the North Carolina, then brutally abused while in custody for insisting on his most basic civil rights, Deborah Johnson weaves a magical realist tale combined with realities of the the early Civil Rights era. Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund figure in the novel, and 1940’s Columbus, MS, provides much of the backdrop for the fictional town of Rever). Invented characters and events, as well as a novel within the novel, provide Johnson the magical elements needed to weave an important statement on race relations in the past, present, and future South.

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Review of Rivers by Michael Farris Smith

RiversRivers by Michael Farris Smith

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

First the disclaimer: Michael Farris Smith is my colleague in creative writing at Mississippi University for Women. Of course, I’m going to like his book! However, even I was surprised by it. Not that I would expect anything less than a good read, but Rivers is much more than a good read. Michael’s prose is a delight. His characters are fresh and at times haunting. He weaves back and forth in time to show us a dystopian future that is all too real juxtaposed with a much more normal and at times idyllic past. The combined effect is to heighten the drama in the present time of the narrative, since the normal world is never too far away from a world turned topsy turvy by endless hurricanes and tropical storms. Ultimately, the core of the book rests on the emotional choices the characters must make. It is a story of grief and loss, as well as a story of attempted new beginnings, of moving forward and looking back. It is a story that will pick you up with the first page and never let you drop until the last. Clear some time before you crack the cover. This is one book you won’t want to stop reading.

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Review: The Three-Day Affair by Michael Kardos

The Three-Day AffairMy rating: 5 of 5 stars

There’s so much I don’t want to say about this book, since it would give away not just the ending but the surprise at every page turn. You don’t keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. You keep wondering, how many shoes can there possibly be? This book puts Imelda Marcos to shame, yet each new revelation is surprising and rewarding in its own way. More than a thriller, yet thrilling, Kardos examines human nature in a tale that is both chilling and hilarious.

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