How books can make things better

bridge.jpgLet’s be honest. America is quickly becoming a shithole country. The steady drone of stupidity coming from Washington, D.C. is deafening. And it’s February in Michigan with all the dreary gray that comes with it. And, of course, there’s what happened yesterday in Florida.

But today’s book was read before a teenaged gunman killed 17 people as they sat in class. It’s interesting, as people across the country ask why, how relevant Thornton Wilder’s 1926 classic “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” still is.

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Patti Smith and a life well-lived

smith.jpegI am late to the party on Patti Smith —rocker, reader, poet, artist, writer. In 2015, I read a glowing review of her book “M Train” and checked it out of the library., but never got around to reading it.

Flash forward to a couple months ago when I came across an audiobook of it, and thought I’d give it a try. One of my sons was exploring her old albums so her name must have been subliminally planted in the front of my mind. Plus, I was in a melancholy mood and, because this was a book about her grief over the death of husband, Fred Sonic Smith, I thought it would be just the ticket.

What I discovered is a remarkable person, a writer of depth and whimsey, and someone I wish I had known about years ago.

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Leaving childhood behind, a poem for my daughter

Today my daughter, the youngest of our four children, turns 14.

The only girl, she is tough, funny, smart, caring, thoughtful and beautiful. As I do with all my kids, I worry about her. She will be in high school in the fall, and kids are mean. She’s going to be exposed to things and people and feelings there I have to close my mind to or I’ll go crazy.

She needs me less and less for the everyday things like shuttling to and from activities, but the truth is, she’s been leaving me since she learned to walk. And I’ve had 13 years to come to terms with that and practice in letting go with her three brothers. It doesn’t make it easier. Today’s poem by Linda Pastan lets me know I’m not alone in this feeling.

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Yet do I marvel at the courage of black poets

cullen 2
Countee Cullen

Because it’s February and because, apparently, I am trite, I will dedicate this month’s poetry posts to work by black writers.

Several years ago when I was fairly newly married, had a child and a full-time job, I decided I thought it made sense to get a master’s degree in English. Because I had an odd work schedule — daily newspapers have lots of those for those willing to take them — I could only take classes on Mondays. My choices were limited and because of that, I took an odd collection that, I think, was good for me.

My favorite was my first, a class on the Harlem Renaissance, a movement I’d heard of, but didn’t know much about. I learned so much about the African-American experience through literature written by black Americans that my fascination with it has continued to this day. It’s a crime so many of these gifted writers with something important to say are unknown to most Americans, and their work is rarely read outside of survey courses on African American literature.

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Sherman Alexie writes a poetic memoir, and a moving study of grief

love.jpegA few years ago, during a trip out West, I discovered Sherman Alexie. An American Indian writer of verse, short stories, novels, screenplays and essays, his books were in just about every bookstore and souvenir shop west of the Mississippi. I saw his books so many times that I thought I’d better get one.

So glad I did. I bought “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven” and felt like I’d read it before, as the stories seemed familiar. It was probably because I’d seen “Smoke Signals,” a movie Alexie based on this series of interconnected stories of life on the reservation. I liked what I read, and did some research on Alexie, finding essays here and poems there, finding myself touched or enlightened by every one I read.

So when I saw he had a new book out, I jumped on it. “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” is a memoir, peppered with poems (see below), making it a unique book in more ways than one.

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Words to live by: A poem (kind of) by a saint

I’m often accused of being judgmental, but what do those bastards know, amIrite?

I can be grumpy and testy and, well, just like the grumpy, testy people I come across every freaking day. Perhaps I get a bad rap because I don’t suffer fools easily and patience is not one of my virtues.

But I’m trying to be better — I will need people around in my old age to wipe my bum — and this poem, by St. Teresa of Calcutta (better known as Mother Teresa) is a place to start. I printed it out a couple months ago and taped it up on the wall next to my desk at work. I  find myself turning to it regularly throughout the day when incompetent idiots think I will drop everything I’m doing to solve their stupid problems. I mean, of course, when I find myself mildly vexed by the questions of coworkers.

Hey, no one said this would be easy or quick.

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A big dump, just to get things moving again — 4 reviews of so-so books

One reason I stopped posting to this blog is because I ran into so many books that were not good but weren’t crap, either, that I found myself uninspired. Why should I waste your time or mine writing full columns about mostly forgettable books? I found myself blocked.

But then I thought, I’m here for you. The mission of Shelf Improvement is to steer you away from crap and I read all those books. So consider this a good dose of fiber meant to bring on a good dump.

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