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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Yet do I marvel at the courage of black poets

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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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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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Two novels about entitlement and something that sure isn’t love

I recently—and quite coincidentally—read two novels that, though very different, are nearly identical in theme, treatment of said theme and the ambivalent reaction I had to each of them.

marriage.jpgThe first of this not-really-dynamic duo was Jeffrey Eugenides’ 2011 “The Marriage Plot.” Eugenides said he wrote this novel as a way of determining whether novels using the what academics call “the marriage plot” could be written in a modern day setting. Well, not quite modern day, as it’s set in 1981, which he clearly remembers a little too fondly.

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The nearly insurmountable challenge of a 19th-Century novel

This post is a twofer. Two reviews for the price of one. This is because I have very little to say about the first novel I selected to fulfill the 19th-Century category of the 2016-17 Classics Challenge.

courage.jpgAfter living a month or so inside the head of the Rebels while reading “Gone With the Wind,” I thought I’d spend some time with the actual winners of the Civil War (though are there really any winners in war?) by reading Stephen Crane’s 1895 novel “The Red Badge of Courage.” I’d liked his short stories (especially “The Open Boat”) and was eager to read it.

I chose this book because it has been on my bookshelf for some 20 years and because it was short. It should have stayed on the bookshelf.

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