Book Review: Saxophone Colossus

Cover of Saxophone Colossus: The Life and Music of Sonny Rollins - Aidan Levy - 9780306902802

This deep dive biographical book about the legendary jazz artist Sonny Rollins is itself, colossal. Saxophone Colossus, by Aidan Levy, is more than 700 pages long, and Levy uses those pages to explore many elements of Rollins’ life on the stage and in the world.

What comes through clear is how inventive Rollins was as an artist, how he found a way through clean living and philosophical ideals, and how he was never satisfied with his work, always pushing himself, even into his late 70s and early 80s, to find the sound and the “chords” he was seeking.

There’s a famous story of his Bridge Year, when Sonny removed himself from the jazz scene in New York, and spent nearly two years in isolation from other musicians, practicing constantly on a bridge, using the ambient reverb and the quiet space to explore his saxophone and his sound. The sabbatical changed him, and when he re-emerged, he was soloing on yet another level.

Rollins could be a tough leader of bands, firing as many people as he hired, but he could be generous, too, with young musicians, using the stage to show how ideas could float in and out of one’s music, with style and propulsion. Rollins was known to play for hours at gigs, even playing during breaks in sets in the back area of bars and performing spaces.

This book does get a bit deep into the nuts and bolts of Sonny’s days — maybe a bit too much for the casual jazz fan, at times — but the moments where Rollins creativity and imagination shine in Levy’s writing are magical and transformative, and he is rightly hailed as one of the jazz greats, a player who bridged the days into the modern era, and helped reshape American music, again and again.

Rollins, 93, is retired now, removing himself from the music scene in his 80s when health and age made touring too much to handle. I saw him play in Boston about 20 years ago, and his performance still resonates with me, particularly the way he moved across the stage and was playful with his solos, enticing the listener to follow his journey on each and every song.

Peace (Sounds Like Jazz),

Book Review: The Language Of Trees

Subtitled A Rewilding Of Literature and Landscape, Katie Holten’s beautiful book The Language of Trees gathers together a rich tapestry of essays, poems, stories, myths, fables and more about trees.

There are pieces about tree clocks, about the oldest trees in the world, an exploration of fossil poems, philosophical musings on how trees root us to the world, and a whole lot more. Small poems are also all over the place in this book. Ross Gay opens the book with a wonderful preface, too.

Not every piece she chose here connected with me but the ones that did were magical. And what makes the book even more fascinating is that Holten has created her own tree typeface, which she uses throughout the collection, transforming poems and passages into pages of tree font.

With Write Out 2023 approaching, this book was a deep dive into the importance of trees and forests and the world.

Peace (and Roots),

Quick Reviews: Three YA Novels

Among the books I read this summer were three interesting Young Adult novels. Here are some very quick reviews of each. The connecting thread is that all three feature female protagonists.

I just finished Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson. It’s a murder mystery with two different levels. One from the past. One from the present. The main character — Stevie — is obsessed with the murder from the past, but then gets drawn into the mystery of the present, and her sharp mind and keen observational skills help her unlock part of the mystery. This had a “to be continued” at the end, a cliffhanger for some of the threads, but I found Stevie to be a highly engaging character and the two mysteries here get entangled at times in interesting ways.

In Truly Devious, the setting is an old school with lots of tunnels and hidden doors and such. An interesting building as setting is also a main concept in Winterhouse by Ben Gutterson. Here, the building is a hotel, with mysteries of its own, centered around the family that owns the hotel. Elizabeth is the main character, an orphan with a quirky personality and a curiosity that leads to odd situations, and entanglements with magic and ghosts of the past. It’s fast-paced story, with some echoes of Harry Potter and other YA novels, but Guterson does a nice job of using the house to make his tale its own story.

Finally, early in the summer, I read The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin. There’s a palpable sadness to this story and yet, it is beautifully written, and we are in the head and heart of Suzy Swanson, whose grappling with the sudden death of a former friend. The novel explores the world of jellyfish through Suzy’s hyperfocus on the creatures, and her theory of the role they may have played in the death of her friend. Not everything is tidy in this story, and that’s OK. Suzy is worth caring about, as she navigates a confusing world.

Peace (and story),

Picture Book Review: National Parks A To Z (Adventure from Acadia to Zion)

Gus D’Angelo has written and illustrate a picture book that is nearly perfect for this October’s Write Out project (learn more about Write Out, a partnership between the National Writing Project and the National Park Service, with events starting this year on October 8th and running for two weeks.)

National Parks A To Z (Adventure From Acadia To Zion) is chock full short explorations of various National Parks, fun illustrations and, as you might guess from the title, alliterations galore.

There’s a fun tone to the book, too, as D’Angelo brings readers into the parks through the use of creatures that live in those areas. So, we meet avocets in Acadia, bison on the Badlands, honus in Hawaii, weasels in Wind Cave, and so one.

But interspersed with the basic ABC format are small poems with environmental themes and informational texts about the National Park system, and native tribes whose ancestral lands form the borders of many park sites.

The result is a fascinating series of informational snapshots, making this book a rich resource for any elementary-level classrooms, and the book could provide a way to introduce the National Parks (and Write Out) for some further research and artwork, as D’Angelo’s illustrations are fun and filled with interesting elements.

Peace (and parks),

PS — D’Angelo has a Mad Lib at his resource site as a PDF (along with some coloring sheets) and I converted his PDF Mad Lib into an online version, if you wanna play.

PPS — Today (Friday, August 25th) is the 107th birthday of the National Park Service.

Book Review: The Book of Hope (A Survival Guide For Trying Times)

“What gives me hope is that everywhere I go, young people filled with energy want to show me what they’ve done and what they’re doing to make the world a better place. Once they understand the problems and when we empower them to take action, they almost always want to help. And their energy and enthusiasm and creativity are endless.” — Jane Goodall, in The Book Of Hope (p. 115)

Douglas Adams sits down with Jane Goodall for a series of conversations over a span of time that make up the heart of The Book Of Hope (A Survival Guide For Trying Times) and Adams digs deep in his queries to Goodall into the quandary of being hopeful in a world where so much seems to be going off the rails — particularly around climate change.

Given Goodall’s long-standing work around nature and preservation, and how often she has had to confront the worst of humanity in the larger world to protect animals, her optimistic view that people can come together to make change, that there is still time to make a difference on climate change if we act now and with urgency, that we can learn and take comfort from the resilience of the natural world — that she continues to be hopeful in the face of all of the difficulties in the things she loves so passionately — well, that might be a path forward for many of us.


This book-length conversation is full of her stories (and Adams, too) that illustrate her thinking, but it also contains her observations of the ways hope can transform the world. She’s also bluntly realistic, understanding the challenges and the headwinds that always rage against change. Yet she seems willing to engage and to talk with and to argue against and to support anyone with a focused passion and conviction.

There are four main strands of inquiry of what hope is as Adams interviews Goodall here over the course of more than a year — and then with the interruption of the Pandemic that forced them to pause for a bit of time:

  • Amazing Human Intellect
  • Resilience of Nature
  • Power of Young People
  • Indomitable Human Spirit

The most powerful message contained in this conversation, I think, is this: every single person can make a difference, even if its a small step forward, but only if you find the agency to act on your hope, and your impact on the world gets magnified when you work with others. Hope without action is just wishful thinking, she suggests, and not very productive.

Or, as Adams puts it in his end notes:

“Hope is a social gift, one that is nurtured and sustained by those around us. Each of us has a web of hope that supports, nurtures, and uplifts us throughout our lives.” — Douglas Adams, The Book Of Hope (p.238)

Peace (and Hope),

Book Review: Little Poems

Little Poems by

I am a morning poet, writing small poems to start the day. There’s long been something about the concision of words and trying to create a scene out of a verse or two, or a haiku, that appeals to me. I’m not suggesting all of my poems are great or insightful or anything but every now and then … you know?

Little Poems — a collection of 300 or so small poems gathered by editor Michael Hennessy — is full of these little writings. There are dozens and dozens and dozens in here, so much so that when I was checking the book out of the library, the librarian opened it to the Table of Contents out of curiosity and began to cite the many poets in here, as I stood there, nodding in agreement.

From early poems by Sappho (Seventh Century BCE) to modern poets (Ocean Vuong, still writing wonderful poems), the gathering of verse here stretches over time and content, and style. All the poems here are under 14 lines. Some are magnificent. Some are mundane. Some are intriguing. Some, confusing.

Most of us experience literature for the first time in the form of a ‘little poem.’ Long before we’ve tasted our first solid food, we’ve heard a soothing lullaby spoken or sung by a parent, and before we start school, we have already begun to accumulate a storehouse of nursery rhymes. The sounds and rhythms of those little poems are embedded in memory, and we pass them down to the next generation. – Michael Hennessy, editor, Little Poems, page 17

I found myself slowing down to the handful of shape poems here — a form that interests me, particularly in light of how some digital tools might be used by poets to enhance a poem — and found the poems to be delightful in their visual nature, the way a writer imagines words as design.

Here is an audio interview with Hennessy about Little Poems via MixCloud.

Peace (and poems),

Book Review: Math Games With Bad Drawings

I’m not a math teacher but I do enjoy learning about different facets of mathematics, if only to be able to help my students when needed. And I enjoy games, particularly ones that challenge my learners.

So Ben Orlin’s Math Games With Bad Drawings is a treasure box of ideas, packed with 75 (and 1/4) challenges and games that are infused with math concepts but can be played mostly with paper, pencil and sometimes, dice (plus, a few need a few more pieces, easily found).

Orlin is a master at deceptively simple comics that are funny but insightful and are perfectly paired here with his sharing of the math games, and how to play them, along with variations and the deeper questions of why each game matters for mathematical thinking. He also gives fascinating histories of who invented the games and why. Plus, he’s  just a very funny writing.

Here’s one called Taxman. Here’s another called 101 You’re Out.

I’ve dog-eared about ten different games here that I know I can easily bring into my classroom for quick paired or group activities that will spark some interesting thinking of sixth graders. I highly recommend Math Games With Bad Drawings and another book of his — Math With Bad Drawings — is one I lent to my math colleague and then never saw it again (so, I know, it connected).

Peace (and fun),

Graphic Novel Review: The National Parks (Preserving America’s Wild Places)

History Comics: The National Parks cover

Now here’s a perfect book for the annual Write Out celebration of National Parks and public spaces that takes place each October. The National Parks (Preserving America’s Wild Places) by Failynn Koch is part of a series of “History Comics” by the First Second Publishing company, and this deep look at the formation of the National Park system is fantastic, fun, informative and provocative.

In this fast-paced historical tour of how the National Park System came to be, Koch does not turn her attention away from controversial elements of the park system’s history that includes the taking of land from Native American tribes through force and manipulation, the racism that encountered the “Buffalo Soldiers” who acted as the first protection force of public lands following the Civil War, and the much-too-slow rise of women leaders in the organization, mostly due to gender disparities build into the institutions of government. In many books in the past about the National Parks, these issues are either left out of the official narrative or brushed over. Here, Koch gives these topics ample room.

The book also explores the impact of many important historical characters, like John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt, Marjorie Stoneham Douglas, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and many others who saw that only through activism and outreach could the general public really see the value of a system like the National Parks. And even those who are often celebrated (rightly) for their advocacy are giving nuances (such as Teddy Roosevelt’s inclination to still want to hunt animals on public lands and ignoring the interconnected lives of the forests themselves).

Koch spends ample time, too, on the debate that has long taken place between those who advocate Preservation (protecting lands from any significant human activity) and Conservation (allowing some operations to take place, such as logging, while protecting the space). We still see this taking place today, particularly when it comes to introducing animals like the wolf back into park lands or in fire reduction strategies.

In the end, this graphic history provides a rich insight into one of our country’s treasures: the complicated system of public spaces that are the National Park Service system. In the Write Out project (a free program which takes place each year in the Fall), we explore some of these issues through activities and collaborations, but this book would be a nice text to any classroom library (ideally, given the text complexity here, upper elementary to high school readers). Boy, I know I sure would love to have a class set of this book for our classroom work in Write Out.

(via Macmillan Publishing site)

Peace (and Parks),

Book Review: Big Tree

Big Tree

Whenever Brian Selznick puts out a new book, I am always an eager audience. Ever since The Invention of Hugo Cabret blew my mind when it came out, I have kept an eye on what he is doing. Not all of his books have landed as emotional for me as Hugo, but they are never dull literary experiences.

His recent book — Big Tree — is another glorious Selznick work of art — with a mix of silent pencil sketch drawings and a story about two little tree seeds on a journey of a lifetime (or many lifetimes, perhaps, given the span of years that book covers). In his afterword, Selznick tells how the story was started as a possible movie script with Steven Spielberg and then later, become the Big Tree book.

Informed by science about plants, animals, and the ancient world, Big Tree follows a sister and brother seed of a Sycamore tree in the time of the dinosaurs through the modern day, and along the way, the two seeds have adventures that bring them into contact with all sorts of wondrous creatures, including mushrooms that act as “ambassadors” of the forest through the interconnected fungi networks; rockweed (seaweed) under the ocean, where the seeds are trapped inside a shell; and more.

If you know his books, then you know to expect meticulous, beautiful, evocative pencil drawing and the artwork in Big Tree is no exception, as the story unfolds both in texts and in artwork, and the way Selznick brings the reader into the story through his pencil strokes — where you flip page after page after page, like a stopmotion scene unfolding on paper — is an interesting experience. (See excerpt)

This book has a central environmental theme coursing through the narrative, about how all of us have an obligation and a means to do something positive for the planet, even if we feel small and insignificant in the larger world.

Peace (and Plants),