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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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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Feeding the beast: Two books explore my favorite hobby — eating

ate.jpegSo here are two terms I have never heard before: “culinary historian” and “historical gastronomist.” They both sound like the same thing, but what do I know? I’ll tell you what I know: If I saw this job when I was taking aptitude tests in high school I would have been on it like a hobo on a ham sandwich. It sounds like fun and, hey, eating is involved.

I recently read “What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women & The Food That Tells Their Stories” by culinary historian Laura Shapiro, and “Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine” by historical gastronomist Sarah Lohman and have been yapping about them nonstop ever since.

flavors.jpeg“Come on,” I said at holiday gatherings, about one drink shy of completely embarrassing myself. “Guess the eight flavors.” And when we weren’t playing that game, I was discoursing on all the bizarreness that was Hitler’s lover Eva Braun and Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown’s pathetic slavishness to staying thin.

There are certain family members who have stopped taking my calls.

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