Book Review: The Comfort Of Crows

I love Margaret Renkl’s regular column of observational writing in The New York Times and I enjoyed her last book – Late Migrations – immensely. Her latest book — The Comfort Of Crows — hit me in a different way, as she documents the seasons of the year through the lens of nature in her Nashville yard.

My connection with her narrative is that, like her, our three sons have all moved out of the house (the last one is in his first year of college) and my wife and I are navigating these empty spaces that were once full of noise and activity. We’re awash in the stories of their childhoods in sudden memories, and thinking of where our next phase of life will bring us.

Renkl does the same, but with lovelier language and keen observational skills, and this collection of short essays and “praise songs” for nature and the animal world resonated, particularly as she grapples with the changing environment and animal passages through her property, connecting what she is seeing out her window with her own family history and her own stories.

The Comfort Of Crows is beautiful writing, made even more delightful by the collage and artwork of her brother, Billy Renkl, who illustrates each section with intriguing art that mixes various media together to capture the natural world.

Peace (ponderings),

Book Review: High Bias (The Distorted History of the Cassette Tape)

High Bias: The Distorted History of the Cassette Tape

Marc Masters’ expansive exploration of the birth and continued surprising life of cassette tapes for music, for sharing, for documenting a scene or a life, for remix and more, is a fascinating exploration of a media format that was once ubiquitous (mostly, thanks to the Sony Walkman) but is now finding space in creative corners of the collecting world.

High Bias (The Distorted History of the Cassette Tape) covers a lot of ground, from the invention of the pocket-sized recording/listening objects to the world of mix-tapes, and the book is loaded with lots of interviews with the world of tape cassette collectors.

Masters gives the tape format its due, celebrating the ways that the tape cassette freed listeners to make their own albums of recorded materials, allowed them to share their passions with others, provided independent musicians a chance to record on the cheap (thanks in part to the emergence of inexpensive four-track cassette recorders), and brought World Music and musical oddities to the ears of listeners that would have otherwise been out of earshot, because the large music companies would have ignored the music and sounds.

As I was reading the book, my mind kept heading towards my basement and bedroom closet, where I still have boxes of tapes of my own song recorders from decades ago, and I even have a four-track recorder in the house and at a tag sale, I picked up a little cassette player that works (I never use it but I have it). My tapes are probably degraded at this point in time, but I can’t seem to toss them out — the tapes, even in physical format, represent a part of me, an emotional element of a time in my life when recording on cassette tape was central to my sense of self.

This emotional response to cassette tapes is something Masters explores in his book, and tapes are so unlike CDs and digital files and streaming. The physical aspect — the pocket-sized object — is an emotional anchor to many. Add in the element of making and receiving mix-tapes from others (which seems so different from digital playlists), and you have a resonance that continues to this day, in some circles.

That’s a good thing, in my opinion, even if the world of cassette tapes is now small, just like the object it celebrates.

Peace (recording it),

Graphic Memoir: Artificial (A Love Story)

The cover of Amy Kurzweil's book Artificial: A Love Story.

Graphic Novelist/Cartoonist Amy Kurzweil explores the intersections of family, of story, of technology and of Generative Artificial Intelligence in her new graphic memoir — Artificial (A Love Story) — and it sure seems like a book for the age we are in right now.

Her father – Ray Kurzweil — is a well-known figure in the technological world, always seeming to be a few years or decades ahead of others in thinking of the possibilities of technology. He has long talked of his concept of the “Singularity” where computers and humans will be fully entangled in common life experiences. His work is far-reaching, and he is a writer, creator, thinker, teacher.

Amy Kurweil, known for her art as a cartoonist in The New Yorker and beyond, weaves the story in graphic format of her father’s attempts to use the writings of his own father — Amy’s grandfather, Fred Kurzweil, a musician and conductor — to create an early version of an AI Chatbot that will allow Ray and Amy to converse with Fred, long deceased.

This fascinating book explores Amy’s early interactions with the Chatbot created with the words of a grandfather she never knew, as she and her father wrestle with the large questions that emerge from such an experiment, such as where does a person’s life really end, how authentic are the words we leave behind to the person we are, what are the ethics of create an AI Chatbot out of someone’s textual trail, and much more.

Amy Kurzweil captures the confusion of these moments of introspection in this world of advancing technology and what it means to have the possibility of reconnecting or just connecting with family through time, through the use of Generative AI platforms seeded with their words but not their personalities.

Although her book just came out this year, the events that she captures take place over the last few years, way before the release of ChatGPT and Bard and others in the recent wave of Generative AI. This gives an interesting resonance to her story, though, for while the Chatbot of her grandfather — it never quite works as she imagines it might — is revolutionary in many ways and before its time, one can easily imagine some company somewhere is already pitching this as a way for family to “remember” a lost relative through an AI Chatbot App.


Peace (writing it down),

Book Review: Diary Of A Wimpy Kid 18 (No Brainer)

Diary of a Wimpy Kid book

It must be that time of year — the time when the newest Diary of a Wimpy Kid book by Jeff Kinney rolls off the presses, and sure enough, for the 18th year (!), a new book has arrived from the series. This one is called No Brainer and it’s another predictably funny set of journal skits in the life of Greg Heffley, and this time, the entire focus is on Greg’s middle school and the education system, so you know I was quickly opening the pages.

Kinney takes aim at issues such as school funding problems, book banning in school libraries, the use of advertising on school property from local companies, and much more as the new (out of retirement) principal of Greg’s school — which just learned it had terrible standardized test scores — seeks to motivate, cajole and do whatever it takes to get the school off the state’s watch-list, before devolving into every aspect of a money-grab.

As usual, it’s all a mess of distractions and dead ends, but Kinney’s skills with his pen and his writing brings heart to the story, through Greg’s keen observations about the transformation of his school, which is in danger of being closed.

I read this one in a day, enjoyed it, and have passed it on to one of my students. When I told this sixth grader that I had been reading each book, every year, for 18 years (I used to read them aloud with each of my three boys when they were younger), the student gave me a look, as if trying to grapple with the longevity of the reading experience.

Then we both laughed, and he thanked me for lending him the book, and soon was completely immersed in it.

Peace (over time),

The Future of Book

Book Student Reflections

I just completed reading aloud Book: My Autobiography by John Agard (illustrations by Neil Packer) to my sixth graders, as we explored the history of books, stories, writing and more through the “eyes” of the narrator — Book. My students enjoy this one, and at the end, I asked them to do some reflecting on the future of books.

The image above captures an interesting data point — nearly all of my students prefer paper bound books as opposed to digital books (I am going to have more of a conversation today with them to suss out a bit why) and their predictions of what books will look like in the future show a mix of possibilities for stories and some fears that paper books will become a thing of the past.

Peace (Inside The Pages),

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),