larger image
morton ad morton ad 1 remarkable story ad remarkable story ad morton ad morton ad


Reading My Father

by Alexandra Styron

Scribner | 2011 | 285 pages | $25.00

Reviewed by Sally Cobau

If staying up way too late reading is any indication of a book’s merit, then this blurry-eyed testimony--it’s the next morning—reflects the value of Reading My Father by Alexandra Styron.  Although the book is not by any means a mystery, Styron plays the part of curious detective as she deciphers the truth about her enigmatic father, the brilliant, cantankerous, Pulitzer-prize winning author of Sophie’s Choice.

Reading My Father is unique among the abundance of literary memoirs in both its tone and intentions.  Rather than being a “daddy dearest” tirade against an absent, sometimes frightening parent (when it certainly could have been—I’ll relay a few horrifying scenes in a moment), Styron acts like a cool archeologist, fixing an unblinking eye towards the truth.  In fact, in some ways the memoir is more of a biography, as Styron recreates the world that formed the writer, carefully and gracefully exploring her father’s formative years and even going back a couple of generations.
  In the aptly named Reading My Father most of the clues surrounding her father are offered in the form of the written word.  So Styron goes to Duke University to the antiquated reading room to make sense of the chaotic manuscripts left there (along with 22, 500 other items in the “William Styron Papers”).  Looking at the crazy disarray of the manuscripts, the reader can almost feel Styron the daughter’s hands shaking as she leafs through the pages and asks why?  Why do the manuscripts have so many missing pages?  Why are there so many different books?  And most importantly (and tragically) why couldn’t her father finish the work he had given his life to when he’d had such an illustrious start, beginning with the publication of the much-lauded Lie Down in Darkness?

Alexandra’s early life revolved around acquiescing to the demanding needs of a father whom expected quiet while he wrote and an unwavering devotion of the family to the creative process.  Although she was only a young girl while her father was working on Sophie’s Choice, she understood that Daddy’s work came first and everyone must put up with the mercurial moods which accompanied brilliance. 

For example in one telling scene—family lore that was revealed later—Alexandra, the baby, was being watched by her older siblings when she fell down the basement stairs in a walker (she was found face-down, a welt rising on her head).  The children were too scared to go to their napping father and waited until their mother came home to rush Alexandra to the hospital.  In another scene-almost comical in its over-the-top style—William Styron throws away the junk food his daughter has been eating for years and rants about her TV watching.  Soon enough things return to normal with Alexandra watching TV and eating the junk food.  If anything, this reveals how her father would focus his piercing eye on a subject, only to ignore that very subject soon afterwards.

Yet, having a father who wrote Sophie’s Choice did have its rewards.  When the book came out it was a huge success, propelling her father into literary stardom.  He won the Prix de Rome, American Book Award, Pulitzer Prize, and the Howells Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, among others.  When the movie starring Meryl Streep came out, more accolades followed. 
Alexandra, who was a young teen at the time, felt enormous pride in her father, almost as if the varnish of his luck would rub off on her.  (And perhaps the sacrifices she, her siblings, and mother made during the writing of the book felt justified.)  She bragged to her friends at her private school about the famous writers and singers who showed up for dinner at her house—Joan Baez, Nabokov--and casually, but deliberately showed off the copy of her very own Sophie’s Choice
However, when she finally got down to reading the book, she was absolutely mortified by the sexuality of the writing and put it down after one particularly erotic scene.  She writes, “After school I quietly placed the galleys on the kitchen side table.  I didn’t return to Sophie’s Choice for another twenty-five years.”

The droll humor reflected here and throughout Reading My Father is one of the joys of reading the book.  The baby of the family, Alexandra relied on the macabre wit she shared with her father to placate him and sometimes relieve him of his despair.  She writes, “Daddy’s humor—not cheerfulness but his gimlet-eyed gift for irony—died a slower death than his sanity.  Even when he was almost unreachable in his anguish, he could appreciate the occasional absurdities of his situation.”  In this case the absurdities take place on the psychiatric ward of Yale-New Haven hospital.

But how did such a promising writer end up in the psych ward, a man in desperate need of ECT or shock therapy?  Alexandra Styron lovingly and painstakingly researches the life of her father, from his early childhood he considered idyllic to his mother’s death from cancer, through his military service.  She reflects on the intellectual prowess of her grandfather and the spiritedness of her grandmother.  She traces his time through New York, especially conjuring the time he spent in an apartment that would work itself into Sophie’s Choice
In some sense Alexandra Styron tries to remove herself of emotion as she traces the early life of her father.  Maybe because of this, the book doesn’t have the kick that it does when she squarely places herself in the middle of the action.  I liked the book best when the biography of the father Styron merged—often disastrously—with his cheeky daughter.  On more than one occasion Alexandra Styron wonders if her father, whose demands for solitude was paramount, was cut out for fatherhood in the first place:  “The monomaniacal (usually male) artist is a familiar image.  Even I can see the curious romance in the image of the brilliant writer so consumed in his work he hardly notices his loved ones mooning around in the shadow of his neglect.  O’Neill, Melville, Hemingway—their reputations weren’t diminished but rather cemented by evidence of messy domestic scenes…Whether or not my father ought to have had children is a question upon which, as a chief beneficiary of his largesse, I cannot opine.” 

And Styron did indeed mingle with the great men of his generation—novelists, politicians, and musicians were abundant fixtures at dinners overflowing with glamour (and alcohol).  The suggestion that the work these men were doing was “important” wasn’t questioned, as they left bruised women and fragile children in their wake.  Sometimes the children were simply shipped out if they didn’t conform to their parents’ ideals (one child of a famous writer who had Down’s syndrome was institutionalized).  Alexandra Styron doesn’t fault the parents for sending him there—it was what was done at the time—but she faults her parents for never discussing this.

There are many photographs throughout the book and I found myself drawn to them, mesmerized by what they revealed about the relationship between Alexandra and her father.  On the cover photograph, a very young Alexandra in a long, fancy dress—hair wild, eyes bright-- stares with rapt attention at her good-looking father who is clearly telling her some story, his hands gesturing. 

She writes about her father scaring the bejeezus out of her with ghost stories, but in this picture an impish looking Alexandra is all smiles.  The joy between the two of them is apparent, a gleaming happiness.  So the answer to whether or not Styron should have had children (or indeed if the philanderer should have married—our pity as readers goes out to his wife more than his children perhaps; Rose was his pillar of sanity, intellectual companion, stalwart friend even as he raged horrifically) seems moot in the quivering emotion that hovers in this picture and throughout the memoir.  In spite of their father’s indifference, selfishness, and anger, it’s telling that all his children came to him when he got sick.  One feels that he loved them as much as he was capable of, with a wild love that was full-throated if unpredictable.

For William Styron not finishing the stories that haunted him created a nagging sense of shame.  The scattered papers reveal not one, but four unfinished novels.  But what he did write made him famous and beloved—and no book probably affected a larger audience than Darkness Visible, Styron’s memoir about depression.  Years after the slim book was published he received fan mail, creepy mail, mail from suicidal folk who wanted something from him, some glimmer of truth that a wise author could reveal (the book was published when there was still a hush around depression and the book helped relieve the stigma of mental illness). 

But no book’s story affected our collective unconscious more than Sophie’s Choice.  I made the mistake of telling my nine-year-old daughter the plot of Sophie’s Choice.  Like a scab to be picked, she wanted me to repeat the story over and over, revelling in the existential impossibility of the situation.  Like that story, Alexandra Styron had to delve into the story of her father’s life to make sense of her journey from horse-loving girl to actress to writer.  From early on in her father’s illness she knew that a part of her father’s story was her own, something she could master and make bloom in the telling.

Return to home page


The House of Wisdom
How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance

by Jim al-Khalili

The Penguin Press, New York | 2011

Reviewed by Jane M. McCabe

To counter the claim that they’ve fallen behind Western nations in science and technology, Muslim intellectuals say this wasn’t always so, that, in fact, during the 9th, 10th & 11th Centuries AD, the Abbasid Caliphate of Baghdad was the most advanced civilization in the world. Because Arab scholars of this time translated the works of Aristotle, Galen, Ptolemy and Euclid from Greek into Arabic, they in effect saved these ancient texts so that during the 14th, 15th, & 16th Centuries they could be re-translated into Latin in Spain and Italy, thus inspiring the Renaissance and the birth of scientific inquiry in the West, the engine that drove West’s dramatic technological advance.

Jim al-Khalili, a theoretical nuclear physicist at the University of Surrey in England, is an Iraqi—his father is a Shi’a Muslim of Persian descent and his mother is British. He grew up in Baghdad; though he hasn’t lived there since 1979, it formed his sensibility. As a Western-educated scholar and scientist yet a Persian, he is well-suited to describe this process in detail.

We are indebted to the Greeks who lived centuries before the birth of Christ for giving us the foundation of our philosophic and scientific understanding of the world.  Aristotle, perhaps the most influential of Greek philosophers, lived in the 4th Century BC, was a student of Plato and the teacher of Alexander the Great (who in turn brought Greek culture to Persia when he conquered it in 330 BC.)

His writings cover many subjects—physics, metaphysics, poetry, theater, music, logic, rhetoric, linguistics, politics, government, ethics, biology, and zoology. They were the first to create a comprehensive system of philosophy, encompassing morality and aesthetics, logic and science, politics and metaphysics.

Euclid was a Greek mathematician, often referred to as the "Father of Geometry." He was active in Alexandria during the reign of Ptolemy I (323–283 BCafter the death of Alexander the Great.) His Elements is one of the most influential works in the history of mathematics, serving as the main textbook for teaching mathematics (especially geometry) from the time of its publication until the late 19th or early 20th centuries.

Galen was a prominent Roman physician, surgeon and philosopher. Arguably the most accomplished of all medical researchers of antiquity, Galen contributed greatly to our understanding of anatomy, physiology, pathology, pharmacology, and neurology, as well as philosophy, and logic.

Ptolemy was the author of several scientific treatises, at least three of which were of continuing importance to later Islamic and European science. The first is the astronomical treatise now known as the Almagest or "The Great Treatise,” the second is the Geography, a thorough discussion of the geographic knowledge of the Greco-Roman world. The third is an astrological treatise in which he attempted to adapt astrology to the Aristotelian natural philosophy of his day.

This is a sampling of the works that might have been lost had they not been translated into Arabic by the scholars of 9th Century Baghdad.

A little background is here in order. A book to which I refer to again and again regarding Islamic history is Robert Payne’s, The History of Islam. After the prophet Mohammad died in Medina in 632 AD, war concerning his succession broke out among his followers, causing a schism that exists in Islam to this day. Sunnis claimed succession should be democratic whereas the Shi’a claimed it should be according to lineage.

The first caliphate to be established outside Arabia was the Sunni Umayyad Caliphate of Damascus, which governed the Muslim world from 661 to 750 AD, when it was overthrown by the Shi’a Abbasids, who built their capital in Baghdad.

Dr. Khalili informs us that during the reign of al-Mamun, the son of Harun al-Rashid, the “Translation movement” began. Inspired by the Koranic injunction to study all of God’s works, scholars were funded to gather Persian, Sanskrit and Greek texts and to translate them into Arabic, the language of the Koran.

”The House of Wisdom” was the academy built by al-Mamun in 9th Century in Baghdad to house scholars and further translation activities and experiments. (It was destroyed when the Mongols conquered Baghdad in 1268 AD but by then had operated then for nearly four centuries.) Scholars built on Greek and Indian foundations to continue investigations on their own, thereby furthering knowledge in their disciplines.

Many of the innovations that we think of as hallmarks of Western science were actually the result of the ingenuity of those medieval scholars.

Arab astronomers developed the mathematics used by Copernicus in his heliocentric model of the solar system. Arab physicians described blood circulation and the inner workings of the eye before Europeans solved these mysteries, and they laid the foundation for Newton’s theories of optics and gravity.

According to Dr. Khalili, the father of “the scientific method” was in fact an Iraqi physicist, al-Razi, who applied it centuries before the Europeans.

Dr. Khalili records that not long before returning to Baghdad to undertake the rule of the kingdom al-Mamun had a dream in which he saw a man with a reddish white complexion, a high forehead with bushy eyebrows, a bald head and blue eyes, who said he was Aristotle. Al-Mamun asked him, “What is good?” Aristotle replied, “Whatever is good is according to the intellect,” thus granting al-Mamun permission to satisfy his craving for knowledge.

Dr. Khalili singles out various Arab scientists for special attention giving a chapter to each of them:

“The Lonely Alchemist” is Geber the Alchemist. His real name was Jabir ibn Hayyan (721-815 AD), from whom we get the name for the mathematical discipline of algebra and the word “gibberish.”

Chemistry is the study of the properties of various elements and combinations therein. Applied chemistry finds uses in manufacture, as, for example, in the manufacture of soap. (Islam requires that Muslims wash before praying five times a day, so cleanliness is a religious requirement.) Chemicals developed by Arabs improved the manufacture of soap.

Agricultural innovations devised by Arabs are numerous—irrigation, wind- and water wheels, the tree grafting to create new fruits, like tangerines—these things were brought to Spain and from there to the New World.

Things we take for granted like zero as a number and decimal fractions that make use of a decimal point took centuries, even millennium, to devise. They were brought to fruition by Arab scientists.

“The Philosopher,” or Ya’qub ibn Ishaq al-Kindi (800-873 AD) employed the beliefs of the Mu’tazili, a group of intellectuals from Bras-a who embraced a rationalist scientific world-view.

This is a bit of an aside but I believe relevant. During the 1970’s when I was living in San Francisco I experienced many of the offerings of the Human Potential Movement. Following that I attended Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. I was worried that now that I had returned to the faith of my youth, I should disavow the things I had learned during my previous incarnation.

I remember exactly where I was standing when I had this illumination: “Accept the truth wherever you find it.”

Al-Kindi seems to be saying the same thing: “We ought not to be embarrassed about appreciating the truth and obtaining it wherever it comes from, even if it comes from races distant and nations different from us. Nothing should be dearer to the seeker of truth than the truth itself, and there is no deterioration of the truth, nor belittling either of one who speaks it or conveys it.”

“The Medic,” or al-Razi (b. 854 AD) aided in the building of hospitals. His book Why People Prefer Quacks and Charlatans to Skilled Physicians sounds rather modern. Al-Razi synthesized all known medicine by sorting and categorizing it into different areas, from eye diseases to gastro-intestinal complaints, from dietary advice to case studies.

I’ve touched on but a few Islamic scientists and scholars of the time, enough I hope to convince you of their importance. I have by no means exhausted the list.

Andalusia, southern Spain under Islamic rule from the 8th to the 14th Centuries, was an important conduit for the reception of Arabic texts to be retranslated into Latin and thus made available to Europeans.

Copernicus used the mathematical tricks developed by the Maragha School in 11th Century Isfahan to arrive at his final heliocentric model.

It’s reassuring to acknowledge that the scientific community is made up scientists from different times from all over the world, men and women who adhere to a belief in the scientific method as means of ascertaining the truth of our physical universe. A goodly share of these were Islamic scholars.

Scientific progress is a continuum. The baton, so to speak, is passed beyond prejudices of race and religion from the scientists of one civilization to another. The giants of one time stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before and build upon what others have discovered.

Dr. al-Khalili believes the scientific inquiry is at the heart of a civilized and enlightened society. He laments in the last chapter of this finely written and informative book that “in comparison with the West, the Islamic world still seems somewhat disengaged from modern science.”

I suspect this book was in production when what is now referred to as “the Arab Spring” commenced in Tunisia in January of this year and quickly spread to Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Syria. Demonstrations have been renewed in Iran.

Revolts across the Middle East are fueled by young Muslims with access to the Internet and computer technology who want to claim their place in the modern world.

Western technology, especially in its latest manifestations of iPods, smart phones, Facebook and Twitter have proven irresistible not only to Western youth but to the youth of the Middle East. They are eager to jettison their anachronistic dictators, the dinosaurs of the past, and to move forward.

What jihadists and propaganda could not do, western technology has done. There’s no stopping these people, however difficult it is for them, from becoming part of the world and the modern, scientific community. Dr. al-Khalili must be pleased.

Return to home page


Joy for Beginners

by Erica Bauermeister

GP Putnam’s Sons | 2011 | 269 pages | $24.95

Reviewed by Janet Garber


What a vogue there’s been the last few years in women writing novels about women banding together, mostly outside the purview of their men, to read books, fight Nazis, and accomplish great things.  Karen Joy Fowler’s Jane Austen Book Club (2007), a New York Times bestseller and later feature film, comes to mind, as does Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows” epistolary novels, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2008).

In Joy for Beginners, five women (or six, or seven, depending how you count) come together and bond, first to form a baby-holding circle for Sara who’s coping with newborn twins and a toddler, and later to care for Kate who’s battling breast cancer and undergoing chemo.  Each of these different women has a story, naturally, many involving men who have run out on them, and each, it turns out, gets to go on a quest.  Whether they run off to Europe, train for a marathon, or get a tattoo, the implication is that their lives have taken a turn for the better.  They open themselves up to experience – romance, adventure, nature – and that’s where the joy presumably comes in.

The motto of the group: “Adults need to have fun so children want to grow up.”

   Confession:  1) I had the hardest time remembering who was who.  What was my problem? I wondered until one line in particular jumped off the page at me: "...Los Angeles, where the seasons came at us sunny + bland, indistinguishable as Twinkies rolling off a conveyor belt..." (p.209)!  Bauermeister writes with great sensual detail (the feel of a potter’s wheel or a lump of yeasty dough, the smell of “old paper and warm blueberry muffins,” the lush vista of a backyard garden, the sound of “laughter flying after them like flags,” the taste of cannoli filled with heavy ricotta), and she’s adept at spinning out her story, but I’m sorry to say all her CHARACTERS tangled together, and too much energy on the reader’s part went into trying to separate the skeins.

Maybe if one or two of the characters had been . . .black?  poor? nasty? just simply unhelpful?

Confession 2): Here’s where the blandness comes in.  Not a fan of murder mysteries, soulless people making deals with the devil, otherworldly creatures creating havoc for humans, nevertheless, this reader was crying out for some ACTION – instead everything goes off according to plan, not one character fails to complete her quest or is disappointed with the results.  All start a new day, we are led to believe, a better person.  Never was it more apparent that conflict is an integral ingredient of a good story, creating the dramatic tension that’s crucial to involving the reader and giving her a stake in the outcome.

Confession 3): What are we to gather from this story line?  The THEME seems to be that no matter what life throws at you (widowhood, unloving mother, disease), all you have to do is find some good female friends to nurture you and look out for your best interests.  These friends will never have disagreements with you, give in to petty jealousies, steal your men; they’ll have nothing but the best intentions, always. 

Hey, I like that idea, but as Tolstoy realized, no one wants to read about happy families.  And let me add:  Most of us don’t want to read about perfectly mature and mutually enriching relationships, even though in our private lives, this is exactly what we all may be desperately striving to achieve.

So, reader, know thyself!  If light and fluffy stories about women in a circle singing Kumbaya is your pleasure, well then, this book is a good read for you.  For me, I prefer something darker – in fiction, not in life! 

Pass the cannoli, please.  And make that a double expresso.

Return to home page


Haki Madhubuti:
A Tradition of Liberation Narratives:New and Collected Poems

Third World Press | 2011 | 320 pages | $26.96

Reviewed by Brenda M. Greene

if poetry is to have meaning
it must mean something
more than metaphor and simile
more than tree-talk and looking for gigs
more than competition in unrhymed free verse
serious to the bone of incomprehension
surely to land the poet
a guggenheim or macarthur genius grant.

Woven through Haki Madhubuti’s Liberation Narratives , is the theme of the poet as artist.  The role of the poet reflects a long term debate in the literary canon, a debate that was central to the Black Arts Movement where Madhubuti emerged in the 1960s as the progressive and revolutionary poet Don L. Lee.

John Oliver Killens, founder of the first Black Writers Conference hosted by the American Society of African Culture (AMSAC) in 1959, focused on this debate at every Black Writers Conference he convened.  Panels always addressed questions on the responsibility of the artist and whether Black artists had the luxury of producing art for art’s sake, or were they required to produce art that had a purpose.  The excerpt above clearly illustrates Madhubuti’s stance on this debate, a stance that has been a defining principle of his life’s work.

Madhubuti’s voluminous  litany of “liberation narratives” in Liberation Narratives: New and Collected Poems 1966-2009, speaks to his deep belief in the responsibility of the poet as artist and more specifically to his position that as an “Afrikan American” in this country, he has a responsibility to create meaningful and conscious art.  Hence, as a poet he is “serious to the bone of incomprehension.” 

He views the poet as the voice of people, the storyteller, the interpreter and interrogator of the images, sound bytes and propaganda that permeate our culture, environment and lives. His poetry asks us to be more humane and implores us to love and cherish our mates, children and family.  He interrogates and critiques local and global issues and raises political and social awareness of the conditions faced by those who are oppressed and the victims of miseducation, greed, corruption, and social injustice in this country.  

Although I had listened to, and read, the poetry of Haki Madhubuti in the late 60s, and had followed his journey as a “revolutionary writer committed to the principles of cultural nationalism,” I did not have the opportunity to meet him until the 1980s when he was a featured speaker at the National Conference for Teachers of English.  Upon meeting him, I thought to myself, was this tall, demure man with a humble spirit and presence, the same Don L. Lee who I had listened to, who had written Think Black (1966), Black Pride (1968), Don’t Cry, Scream (1969), and We Walk the Way of the New World (1970)?.”  I had expected to meet a man who embodied the essence of radical and revolutionary politics and activism, and instead I met a man who embodied a quiet, determined strength and spirit. Liberation Narratives is symbolic of the totality and complexity of the man I met, the passionate poet, activist, educator, who on his journey through the cycles of life,  remains committed to both the principles of cultural nationalism and to living the life represented in the 91 life poems published in his Book of Life (1973).

In Book of Life, Madhubuti reflects on the importance of examining all that surrounds you.

to seek all the answers of life
into yourself is to misunderstand life.
we are only a minute portion of all
that makes up life and our relationship
to other forms of life gives meaning to our life.
we are all in the cycle of return and give.
understand yourself first but also go
outside of yourself so as to understand the cycle of life.
seek answers of the world in the world
while understanding that the world
is part of you.

Madhubuti has accomplished this in Liberation Narratives.  His narratives critically examine relationships, people and issues from multiple perspectives.  In the opening section of the book, titled “Liberation Narratives,” in the poem,“The Last First,”  Madhubuti begins with reflections on President Barack Hussein Obama. He notes that President Obama is not the first heavyweight champion, mathematician, physicist, trumpet player, bank president, state legislator, father or husband; instead, he defies all of these categories; and is, in fact, the “last first.” As such, he has a challenge to bring all he has experienced: as community organizer, as political speaker, as humanitarian, as environmentalist, to the task of the presidency and to expand the “can” in “we.”  He has indeed a formidable task.

Madhubuti continues in this section with a tribute to Studs Terkel, a man who has “. . . always understood the dominions of words, money, privilege and organic liars,” a man who “. . . among the uncomfortable few” questioned influence and sovereignty.  He also pays tribute to Poet Laureate, Gwendolyn Brooks, “a unique wordgiver.”  This praise, however, is not given to Robert Mugabe, President of Zimbabwe.  In “Losing Honor,” we witness Madhubuti’s sense of a profound disappointment in this African leader, whose addiction to, and abuse of power have resulted in the “slow killing of a nation.” 

Madhubuti’s scathing analysis of the reign of Mugabe addresses the weak and distorted justifications which Mugabe used to remain in power and which have impacted a generation of children and grandchildren who “are disenfranchised and reduced to the bones of Zimbabwe, too hungry to dream or study, too fearful to speak or cry, to angry to forget or forgive. . .”

“Losing Honor” is followed by a series of poems on greed, art, young girls and

the sex trade, corruption.  These opening poems in Liberation Narratives position Madhubuti as a man who is as much concerned with the larger world as he is with the lives of Black people in this country. 

Liberation Narratives continues by taking the reader on a journey which traces the evolution of Madhubuti’s work from radically, progressive poems focused on cultural nationalism, to poems focused on family, love, fathers and sons and institution building.  His use of Black English vernacular, slang and lower case letters is a deliberate strategy to appropriate the language of the academy and to write in a language that is accessible and that speaks to the heart and life of the community.  His poetry is alive, rhythmic and replete with the poetic elements of alliteration, oonomatopoeia and repetition.  He writes,

To be touched by living poetry can only make us better people” in “Poetry” from Earthquakes and Sunrise Missions (1984).

In “Don’t Cry Scream” we see his lament on the life of Billie Holiday and his use of oonomatopoeia in the line beginning with scream. The use of the capital “S,” a departure from his traditional use of no capital letters, points to the intensity of his grief for what happened to Billie.

i cried
for billie holiday,
the blues, we ain’t blue
the blues exhibited illusions of manhood.
destroyed by you. Ascension into:
scream-eeeeeeeeeeeeee-i ng                            sing
SCREAM-EEEeeeeeeeeeee-ing                     loud &
SCREAM-EEEEEEEEEEE EEE-ing                        long with

His use of repetition and his critique of a political system that exploits its people are clearly illustrated in “Killing Memory”,  a poem for Nelson and Winnie Mandela, Killing Memory, Seeking Ancestors, (1987) Madhubuti asks,

who owns the earth?
most certainly not the people,
nor the hands that work the waterways,        
nor the backs bending in the sun,
nor the bonded fingers soldering transistors, 
nor the legs walking the massive fields,
nor the knees glued to pews of storefront or granite churches
nor the eyes blinded by computer terminals.
nor the bloated bellies on toothpick legs
all victims of decisions
made at the washington monument and lenin’s tomb
by aged actors viewing
red dawn and the return of rambo part IX.

At the center of Madhubuti’s poems is his love for Black people and his commitment to celebrating those men and women who have dedicated their lives to correcting the “wrongs” and finding solutions to addressing the many inequities in our society.  His focus on the need to protect and care for our children is illustrated in “Too Many of Our Young are Dying” in Groundwork (1996). 

Our children, in the millions
Are dropping from the trees of life too soon,
Their innocent hearts and bodies
Are forced to navigate within modern madness
In the basements of a crippled metropolis,
A disintegrating culture     too soon.
Are we not all earth & lakes & sun?
And his insight and commitment to love and marriage are portrayed in “Contemplating
Full Orchards” HeartLove: Wedding and Love Poems (1998).
in fresh marriages, you are exposed
like new seeds in earth,
like delinquent gossip from children
like well water to the earth’s organism
define your memories gracefully.

“Fathers and Sons: The Healing Call” in Tough Notes: A Healing Call for Creating Exceptional Black Men (2002), a book of prose and poetry, epitomizes the critical situation facing Black males in the United States and offers a plan for how Black men can  address this situation in their families, communities and nations.  Madhubuti calls out to fathers.

this is our call
sponsor our sons, fill the emptiness in their questions
this is our theology: defeat the devil’s plans
answer the s.o.s, save our sons with f.o.c. fathers on call,
we are sacred answers for the deserted hearts of
boys becoming men.

Writers often say that they write to answer a question. In the preface to Liberation Memories, Madhubuti writes, “I am here because of poetry. . . . I am here because of a patched-quilt of voices that directed my younger life as I searched for all kinds of answers.”     Madhubuti has dedicated his life’s quest to a philosophy that is informed by the principles of liberation and the use of poetic language to find the answers to life’s questions.  He has been called by literary critic Darwin Turner, an “artistic, prophetic educator.” Liberation Narratives is a testament to that title.

A pivotal figure in the Black literary tradition whose work spanned the Civil Rights and Black Arts Movements, Haki Madhubuti is a prolific poet, essayist, editor, activist, publisher and institution builder.  He has over 28 books of poetry and non-fiction, some of which are under his former name, Don L. Lee, and he has founded and developed several independent Black institutions including Third World Press in 1967 and five independent schools.

Return to home page


Poles Apart

by Audry R.L. Wyatt

LitSisters Publishing | Phoenix

Reviewed by Barbara Snow

A good story shows us people struggling to change, to make life better. It makes us care about them enough to forget that we’re reading a story and inspires us to changes of our own. The characters in Poles Apart are lovable in their humanness and forgivable in their fears and confusion, particularly since the patterns with which they struggle result from some of the most horrendous experiences possible.

Chaim Schlessel spent nearly half of his formative teen years in Auschwitz and lost his family there. He committed to living his life fully and joyfully as the only way to make sure the oppressors failed in their attempt to destroy him and his people. Unfortunately his refusal to speak of the past created a void for his son David, who when confronted with the atrocities that obliterated his family, had no way to comprehend or integrate such history.

This is a story about the damage to good people when truth is feared and fear deepens the darkness inside. It is a delightful snapshot into the dynamics of a modern Jewish family living in a typical mid-western city—Cleveland, OH. It is also a testament to the ability of loving family (whether it’s the one you were born into or one you chose) to heal the wounds of the past and support the freedom to be authentic.

While Poles Apart is a pleasurable read, it does not dodge the horrors that are part of our collective history. The memories of horrors that are meted out in tolerable measure still cause the stomach to clench and the body to shiver. Wyatt does an admirable job, particularly since she writes based on personal knowledge. It is appropriate and necessary to hold the human potential for destruction in consciousness. Americans are not exempt. The holocausts in this country began with the extermination of 19 million Native Americans and continued with blacks, and any others who become “demonized” by the perceived ruling class. Adolph Hitler actually stated that he used the model of the U.S. Government’s treatment of Native Americans in his design for the concentration camps.

This book does not try for the kind of distance that addresses the mass manipulation of citizens by their government. It is close to home and heart—close to the places where you and I, live with a relative sense of security. It reminds us of the ripple effect that violence and degradation have on people, families and communities. It is time that we acknowledge that like the adult children of alcoholics, the adult children of survivors of any violence also carry scars in their psyche. Ultimately, this story of the Schlessel family reminds us that we do not remain victims unless we choose to. Chaim Schlessel demonstrates profoundly that who we struggle to be and how we live is ultimately the place of victory.

Return to home page


22 Britannia Road

by Amanda Hodgkinson

Pamela Dorman Books | Viking | 2011 | 323 pages | $26.96

Reviewed by Sarah Vogelsong

One unfortunate legacy of the Cold War is that even today, Americans' understanding of the Second World War is almost entirely focused on Western Europe and the Pacific theatre. Although the Iron Curtain has long since fallen, our knowledge of Eastern Europe has remained vague. Amanda Hodgkinson's first novel, 22 Britannia Road, lifts this veil to provide an occasionally fascinating glimpse into the Eastern European experience of the war through the eyes of a young couple, Janusz and Silvana Nowak, and their young son Aurek.

The story opens with Silvana and Aurek's arrival in England and reunion with Janusz and focuses on the struggles that all three undergo to rebuild their lives after the trauma of war, which is described in flashbacks. Rather unconventionally for wartime literature, Hodgkinson casts the war in a light of survival rather than heroism.

22 Britannia Road provides none of the familiar narratives of underground resistance, soldiers facing death in the trenches, or grim Jewish ghettoes and concentration camps. Instead, the novel focuses on the cruel realities of displacement, with both Janusz and Silvana being effectively cut loose from any community or social ties.

Shortly after enlisting in the Polish Army, Janusz is separated from his regiment, and when Warsaw falls to the Germans, he is forced to flee Poland. He slowly finds his way to France and, eventually, England, where he is absorbed into an engineer corps. Silvana's experiences are harsher. She, too, flees Warsaw and spends the war years in a desperate search for safety for herself and Aurek, stumbling from one temporary shelter to the next and finally seeking protection in the forest.

The story is largely one of isolation, to a perhaps improbable extent. Throughout the novel, characters step in to aid both Janusz and Silvana, but most of these individuals are untrustworthy, motivated by personal desire and greed, and often strangely uninterested in the war beyond its effect on their individual lives.

Somehow, none of the people Hodgkinson portrays seem to look beyond themselves. They articulate little loyalty to their country and speak even less of right and wrong, their faith, or their fellow men. As a result, the story lacks depth: unconnected to any broader ideas and asking no questions about why people behave as they do in war, or how the human spirit can survive such horrors, it provides little beyond an account of three people being swept from one place to the next.

In the absence of any deeper novelistic framework, certain sections bog down, particularly those recounting Silvana's efforts to stay alive in wartime Poland.

One of the strongest points of 22 Britannia Road is the facility with which Hodgkinson switches between past and present, allowing the reader to see how closely the two are intertwined for her characters.

In order to continue their lives, both Silvana and Janusz must come to terms with the things they have seen and experienced, but their memories pose a great obstacle. Dialogue is scarce in this book, but the constant presence of the past perhaps explains its absence: Silvana and Janusz have both become so isolated that they are unable to communicate with each other.

However, the heavy reliance on memory can make it difficult for the reader to engage with the characters. Silvana in particular hardly seems to try to move on from her experiences, and after two hundred pages, my sympathy had worn thin.

22 Britannia Road is clearly a first novel. Hodgkinson falls into many of the traps that beleaguer young writers: telling her readers exactly how a character feels instead of allowing the story to tell itself naturally, relying too heavily on plot twists, and not using dialogue effectively.

The dramatic crux falls too close to the end of the novel, and the story seems to end more because Hodgkinson wants it to, rather than at a logical point.  Nevertheless, Hodgkinson shows promise—her subject is original and her skill in switching between perspectives and times is impressive. It will be interesting to see her development as a writer in novels to come.

Return to home page


The Uncoupling

by Meg Wolitzer

Riverhead Books | Penguin Group USA, Inc. | 2011 | 271 pages

Reviewed by Jill Noel Shreve

People like to warn you,” writes Meg Wolitzer in her newest novel, The Uncoupling, “that by the time you reach the middle of your life, passion will begin to feel like a meal eaten long ago, which you remember with great tenderness.” With this opening line, Wolitzer triggers the first domino in a complex arrangement. As readers watch each piece fall into place, they will witness the delight of a spellbinding story.

Wolitzer sets The Uncoupling in the fictitious town of Stellar Plains, New Jersey, and the narrative follows a snippet of Robby and Dory Lang’s lives. These two midlife English teachers at Eleanor Roosevelt High School are in love with each other and loved by all the high school students. Wolitzer evocatively sculpts these two main characters into people the reader will want to meet. Tangential to these main characters, we meet other folks in the high school: the school counselor, the school psychologist, the principal, a math teacher. With these introductions made, readers get a clear sense of the community, and that’s when Wolitzer unfurls a quirky conceit.  

Fran Heller—the newly-hired high school drama teacher—shows up and chooses Lysistrata for the school play that winter. (This Greek comedic play, written by Aristophanes in 411 B.C., tells the tale of a woman, Lysistrata, who tries to single-handedly end the Peloponnesian War by cajoling her female friends into withholding sex from their husbands and lovers.) When Fran announces the play of choice and student auditions commence, a “spell” sweeps over Stellar Plains causing women to lose desire for making love to their men. The metanarrative opens a door for Wolitzer to communicate to readers the implications of post-modern women losing desire for their men. And those implications engage readers, making them turn pages to find out what happens next. The conceit isn’t a strict 1:1, but it works, and the parallels cause readers to think far outside the plot on the page.

While the suburban community of this novel inch toward opening night and “the spell” takes all the Stellar Plains women and teenage girls captive, the reader will catch lots of subtextual statements. Statements about the current war, the fear of midlife stasis, the plight of raising teens, the debate on monogamous versus casual sex, and the lack of face-to-face connection thanks to social networking to name a few.

But the most potent statement the reader will encounter comes in a line from Wolitzer’s female protagonist: “There was no way to know, thought Dory. You bumped stupidly ahead through life, and you couldn’t know if starring in a play, or sleeping with someone, or marrying someone, or picking a particular college, or even taking a walk down a street, was going to lead to happiness or sorrow. How could you know?” The characters do, for the majority of the novel, seem to “bump stupidly ahead” not knowing quite where they’re going, making choices without regard for consequence. But “the spell” jars the characters out of their suburbia routine, causing a shift in their thinking, which collides into their choice-making and ultimately their actions. These collisions open a point of entry into the narrative for all readers.

 Readers will end up stepping back and saying, “Hmm—yeah, me too.”

Long after readers finish this novel and leave it to shield their bookshelves from dust, those readers will still be asking themselves existential questions like, “What am I doing with my life? What am I doing in my relationships? Am I just stumbling along? Do my choices matter?” And it’s for this reason that I recommend this novel. We all need to ask ourselves these questions—and not just during quarter-life or mid-life crises. Wolitzer’s novel digs deep into the hearts of readers, subliminally unearthing their deepest, inherent passions as people, causing folks to rethink their current patterns and routines. So grab a copy from your local bookstore, and see if The Uncoupling spell awakens something dormant in you.

Return to home page


The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies — How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths

by Michael Shermer

Times Books | 2011 | 344 pages | $28.00

Reviewed by Michael Carey

Why do people believe? We all believe in something, and I know I’ve sometimes asked myself, “How can someone think that way?” In Michael Shermer’s The Believing Brain, he explores that opening question through science. His answer is, “We form our beliefs for a variety of subjective, personal, emotional, and psychological reasons in the contexts of environments created by family, friends, colleagues, culture, and society at large: after forming our beliefs we then defend, justify, and rationalize them with a host of intellectual reasons, cogent arguments, and rational explanations. Beliefs come first, explanations for beliefs follow. I call this process belief-dependent realism, where our perceptions about reality are dependent on the beliefs that we hold about it. Reality exists independent of human minds, but our understanding of it depends upon the beliefs we hold at any given time.”

Dr. Shermer is the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine and worked on or penned nearly a dozen other books. He is well educated and versed on the subject he tackles in The Believing Brain. Through several disciplines of science and citing many research experiments conducted over the years, Shermer makes the case that humans were made to believe, and that we form our beliefs through what Shermer calls patternicity (the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless noise) and agenticity (the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention, and agency).

In The Believing Brain, Shermer takes the reader from the firing of a neuron, to the discovery that there are galaxies outside our own, to show the inner workings of belief development and the impact science has had on correcting once-faulty belief systems.

With a touch of his own personal experiences, Shermer leads the reader on this journey hand-in-hand with a firm but gentle grip. At times, with comments that seem condescending and seeming deviations from the path, the grip feels tighter and the leading more like dragging. These times caused me to question my guide and his ultimate agenda.

However, through the course of the book, Shermer’s point and request is stated simply. The point is demonstrated well enough in his own words quoted above. His request is that whatever we choose to believe should be subjected to scientific rationale. And in cases where proof is yet to been seen, we should be aware of that, and the biases associated with it.

Shermer understands well that politics, religion, and other personal preferences are deeply rooted in our personality and even our heredity. He also knows the emotional baggage that these issues throw around in our view of the world. I think that through most of the book, he handles these “heavy” matters lightly so that, for example, even some of the most radical liberals/conservatives can read the section on politics without feeling under attack from a libertarian (Shermer’s political stance).

The Believing Brain offers a lot of scientific, psychological, historical, and hypothetical food for thought. If you are someone open to a different opinion, or interested in unraveling the inner workings of some unconscious thought processes, The Believing Brain offers you an insightful and educational read.

If you are someone who would rather not challenge your beliefs, Shermer’s book might activate your defenses (I know I got worked up a few times). In that, though, he allows for choice, offering that science is the best tool to uncover truth; and until then, “I don’t know” can be the honest answer.

Return to home page