Book Review: The Anthropocene Reviewed

The Anthropocene Reviewed (Signed Edition): Essays on a ...

John Green is a talented writer, and is curious about many things. Both of those skills come to the surface often in the short essays that make up Green’s non-fiction collection entitled The Anthropocene Reviewed, one of the first books I have read that was written during the Pandemic and is not afraid to make that time period of writing very visible (and which I appreciated).

Subtitled “Essays on a Human-Centered Planet,” this collection of writing spans the observational world from Halley’s Comet to Diet Dr Pepper to sunsets to Piggly Wiggly stores to The Mountain Goats to the world’s largest ball of paint. That just scratches the surface of the pieces here, which originated in one form or another with Green’s podcast. (Green is also the well-known author of young adult fiction like The Fault In Our Stars and often does video-blogging with his brother, Hank).

Green never shies away from his own struggles with mental illness, and seeks to understand the ways the complexities of the modern world challenge and stress him out to exhaustion (at times) and breakdowns (at others), and how he finds comfort in the small moments of the world, too, and the people around him. This balance between explaining the larger picture of a world of complexity and noticing the moments one needs to survive become the emotional pivot points of these essays.

What is the Anthropocene? It’s the name for our current geological age that we humans are in right now as we impact the planet with all of our use and misuse, with all of our potential for good and all of our potential for harm. Green uses this term to frame his thoughts on what it means to be a human right now, and not just right now, but … right now … in the midst of a Pandemic, which he never shies away from (and hopefully, those references won’t make this collection only pieces for these days … I appreciated the references to how our lives were disrupted by Covid).

Green’s writing voice, too, is like a friend, as if the reader and writer were having breakfast and Green poses a question, and then invites you in to follow the thread of the answer. Each chapter ends with Green giving something a rating of one to five stars (playing off the need in the modern world to rate everything as social practice). So, for example, viral meningitis gets one star while the beauty of sycamore trees gets five stars.

I give Green’s book five stars.

Peace (in the world we live in),
Kevin

Graphic Memoir Review: Almost American Girl

Almost American Girl by Robin Ha [in Booklist] | BookDragon

Robin Ha’s memoir of moving to America from South Korea as a child, and not knowing a lick of English, is a testament to not just perseverance, but also, to each person finding some way forward. Ha’s graphic memoir — Almost American Girl — is part of the new and appreciated wave of new diverse voices in the field.

Ha’s single mother brought her unexpectedly to Alabama when Ha was a child, and she knew no English or much about American culture, and so, she struggled with loneliness and language, until years later, when Ha stumbled upon a group of other teens making comics and stories at a comic book store. This changed everything for her. These scenes reminded me of the groups of young people I used to see huddled around comics at our local comic store when my eldest son was younger and we visited the comic store regularly. The clusters of kids I noticed there are also what encouraged me to integrate comic making into my sixth grade classroom.

For Ha, the connection to art gave her anchor and friendship, and her story reminds us, as teachers, that we need to find and nurture the passions of our young people, and show patience and compassion to immigrant students making their way through the American landscape.

One element that surfaces early and remains is Ha’s love and frustration with her mother, whose a strong personality for the most part but then Ha begins to see her mother with more compassion and fragility.This emerges in the story slowly but powerfully.

The artwork here is fine, and I love that Ha was able to bring some of the comics and graphic arts she made as a kid into the story.

Peace (in the panel),
Kevin

Book Review: Wink

I had seen Wink, by Rob Harrell, in a few lists of “best of” book lists from last year and finally got a chance to read it during our class Independent Reading time at the end of the year, and I admit: I really enjoyed it.

Harrell, a comic strip/graphic novelists, uses his own childhood story of a rare eye cancer to inject his main middle-school-student character, Ross, with authenticity, as Ross goes through the same ordeal. The book is prose but has lots of funny doodles and a running Ross-created comic called BatPig that is hilarious and insightful, capturing the anxiety of Ross as he goes through treatment.

Stories of young people and cancer are, of course, serious business, and can often get stuck under a dark narrative cloud. There are dramatic moments here, as Ross struggles with difficult questions of why this cancer happening to him, of how his friends are either coming in close or drifting apart, and how it is affecting his family. His mother died earlier of cancer, too, and his father, during one of the more powerful scenes, tells Ross how he, the father, barely held it together after she died.

Ross is also the victim of some cruel social media posts by classmates, as he and his cancer is turned into memes that spread like wildfire and make him feel powerless. Only his best friend, Abby, holds him together until a dramatic confrontation with the meme-generating students during a lunch.

And then there’s the rock and roll. Ross decided he wants to learn to play guitar, which leads to a Talent Show, in which all of Ross’ anger and frustration at the world is let loose in an amped-up punk rock performance with Abby and another friend that startles everyone in the audience (he even destroys an old guitar on the stage in class Hendrix fashion). In music, Ross finds release.

This book is appropriate for upper elementary and middle school students, for sure.

Peace (on stage),
Kevin

Book Review: The 99 % Invisible City

The subtitle to Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt’s The 99 % Invisible City says a lot about what to expect from within its pages: “A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design.”

Inspired by their 99 % Invisible podcast, the authors here explore a menagerie of ideas about urban spaces that are intriguing, interesting and make you want to open your eyes and really see the world as you wander your nearest city (including the one you might live in). The use of “design” as a lens is really helpful, too.

I appreciated the scope of the short pieces here and how they are grouped under general themes like “Conspicuous” and “Architecture” and “Urbanism” and then broken further into ideas like “Identity” and “Liminal” and “Interventions.” Taken together, the book lives up to its claim of helping us notice the things we either take for granted or fail to notice because they are so visible.

So, we learn about fire escapes, and traffic signals, grassroots gardening and viral signage, sidewalk markings and emergency exits. Seriously, the topics are wide-reaching and yet, ordinary on the surface — only to be revealed as interestingly complex just below.

You won’t see the city streets the same way again, and that’s a good thing.

Peace (watching our step),
Kevin

Book Review: The Cabinet of Calm (Soothing Words for Troubled Times)

Cabinet of Calm: Soothing Words for Troubled Times ...

Sometimes, you find a book. Sometimes, the book finds you. The Cabinet of Calm (Soothing Words for Troubled Times) by Paul Anthony Jones is one of those books. I can’t even recall when or where I first saw it mentioned but since buying it in January, it has been a constant, regular reading text for the last seven months.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book so slowly, over so many months. It’s unlike me. But with each chapter, arranged alphabetically, focused on a single word — some lost to time, some whose meanings have changed — about surfacing through hardship or finding a path forward or becoming inspired, I didn’t want to rush the book.

So I didn’t.

Passage to Port (Cabinet of Calm quote)

Instead, I wrote small poems after reading nearly every chapter on nearly ever word from January through July. I found Jones’ explorations of words inspiring, and with my starting of the reading of the book in the depths of the Pandemic (January) and moving through the possibility of better and more normal times (vaccines), I kept returning to the book, finding new ways to think about how words and language can give us some comfort.

This back and forth between reading and then writing became a ritual of sorts, although I didn’t do it every day and sometimes, the book was just sitting on my counter, untouched, for stretches of time. Paul Anthony Jones has the ability to sift through language, and cultural meanings, and his curation of these words in this bound “cabinet” is something I intend to come back to when I need to.

Another day, I will share out my entire collection of poems inspired by The Cabinet of Calm. Until then … read on, and find your own ways to comfort the anxieties and inner voices of the Modern Age. Maybe a word inside the cabinet might help you, too.

Peace (gathering it up),
Kevin

Book Review: The Call Me Ishmael Phone Book

The Call Me Ishmael Phone Book: An Interactive Guide to ...

I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I saw The Call Me Ishmael Phone Book (An Interactive Guide to Life-Changing Books) on the shelf of the public library. It was a chance check-out, done on a whim, and how glad I am that I did.

This text is in the form of a phone book (perhaps a generational splitter for readership, but who knows) and is a collection of codes, so that when you call the main phone number, and enter a code, you can hear another reader give a story or review of a book that is listed in the phone book.

Get it?

There are also prompts throughout the book (such as shout out your local independent book store or tell of a book you read as a child, etc.) with an invitation to add your voice to the telephone book. So each reader has the opportunity to be part of the book.

How cool is that?

There are also narrative transcripts in this physical book, taken from the audio files of readers, that tell stories of how books did transform their lives, and how certain books left imprints on their past, present or perhaps, future trajectory. I loved that sense of voice in these mostly-anonymous stories of books.

Oh, and did I mention all of the playful “advertising” throughout the book? They are funny, insightful and a bit tricky, calling on memories of stories and characters in famous books. Those have codes to call into as well.

The Call Me Ishmael Phone Book | Book by Logan Smalley ...

All in all, The Call Me Ishmael Phone Book is a reader’s delight on many levels, and it inspires the reader to ‘call in’ and join the mix of book lovers.

Peace (on the lines),
Kevin

PS — wanna try it out? Call 774 325 0503 and use the code 5490 to learn about American Born Chinese, the graphic novel by Gene Luen Yang

Book Review: Wintering (The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times)

I can only imagine the publishers of Katherine May’s book — Wintering (The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times) — rushing to get it out of the galleys and into the stores as the Pandemic hit us hard and retreat was a global movement, as was loss and grief and fear for many. How to make sense of it all was and remains a conundrum of the times. May’s book helps give us some context.

I read Wintering just as Spring arrived, and vaccinations were just underway, and while there was optimism that we might yet venture more fully into the outside world (as has now happened), the warnings were everywhere to be cautious and learn from experience.

Some of May’s passages are just brilliantly beautiful, full of shadowed repose to remember that the dark brings the possibility to nurturing yourself, a reminder that not all is bright and light and sunny. This book is about realistic resilience, and May’s work doesn’t sugarcoat her pains and anguishes and worries.

But it does remind us that the dark may not last forever, and what we do during those difficult times will help us heal on the other side. Her book is divided into the seasons of Winter, and although I read it within a few weeks time, I wish I had savored each section during the time of year from which she writes about. I suspect that would have given my reading of her prose even more power.

Perhaps some other time, when I need it, then.

May shares her own stories, and strategies, and insights about how to grapple with the cold seasons of our lives, and she deftly surfs the metaphors here, through conversations with friends and colleagues, and bringing her own stories into the mix. Her connections to noticing nature worked the best, for me, as she notices the world more acutely even as her world seems more insular as illness and change impact her.

Wintering is a reminder that it is OK to find time to pay attention to yourself, and to use the natural world as inspiration, and reminder, to what may yet come when the season recedes and another takes its place.

Peace (burrowed down but coming up),
Kevin

Book Review: Looking To Get Lost (Adventures in Music and Writing)

If you read books about music, as I do, then you likely know the name of writer Peter Guralnick, whose explorations of the blues, of Sam Cooke, of Sun Records, of Elvis, and many more go deeper than most books do to the heart of what music is and how strong the heart of performers beat.

In his recent collection of essays, entitled Looking To Get Lost (Adventures in Music and Writing), Guralnick keeps his attention on the music but also turns it on himself, too, as a writer who found himself on the music scene because of a passion and used his skills as an interviewer and a researcher to make visible the terrain of artists, particularly those from the South, and particularly those black artists whose work paved the way for rock and roll and modern music.

The book is a gathering of mostly shorter pieces, and some of the best take a look at the raw talent of Howling Wolf, the expansive innovative energy of Jerry Lee Lewis, and the soulful enigma of Solomon Burke, and much more. A consistent thread through the pieces here is the humanity and patience of Guralnick as he weaves in the stories and the impact these men (for they are all men that he looks at here) have had on American culture.

I also found the pieces about Guralnick as a writer intriguing, as he talks about his own feelings of inadequacy in talking with the musical greats he so admired, and how his father and grandfather (both doctors) supported his idea of being a writer at an early age, instilling confidence that following your passion will lead you somewhere (although sometimes, that somewhere is not always where you think your passion will lead you).

Peace (singing it),
Kevin

Book Review: Annotation

Annotation | The MIT Press

(Note: I was one of those people who took up an early invitation by the writers to add some thoughts via crowd annotation to an early version of this book)

Annotation and Curation seem to be critical skills and processes that might help us all thread together our disparate and often confusing online information flow in this modern age. When we annotate, we leave a trail of thoughts and discourse. When we curate, we pull those trails together in meaningful ways.

In the new book, Annotation, researcher/educators Remi Kalir and Antero Garcia (two people I know well from through the National Writing Project) explore the power of social annotation of texts through a variety of lens and make the case for a future in which our comments and conversations across platforms and texts could connect, and transform the way we think, learn, read and communicate with others.

Annotation Annotations

Comics made as annotation to Annotation

This small book from MIT Press has both historical references (the way annotations helped readers make sense or talk back to books in the margins of those books, that were then passed around communities) to the Talmud (religious text annotations across time) to the way annotation helps learners with reading comprehension and text questioning, through solo annotation (for oneself) and crowd annotation (writing in the margins along with others).

As someone who has used platforms like Hypothesis, Vialogues and NowComment and others to annotate with others on a variety of texts and media, and found the experience empowering and enlightening, I appreciated the many angles that Kalir and Garcia bring to the table in their book.

They raise critical and ethical questions of content ownership (does the writer of the text need to grant permission for online annotation?); whether platforms are texts and writing on those platforms, annotation (Is Twitter a text and tweets, annotations to that text?); how marginal voices might find a way to be heard amid so much noise of the world and power imbalance; and so much more.

Annotation will provide you with a deep look into how annotation has evolved into the digital age and leave you with the hopeful ideas that annotation has the possibility of pushing back against disinformation as well as becoming part of a larger quilt to reconnect our disparate online selves and words together, whatever the platform. And in doing so, Garcia and Kalir argue, the world might become a more interesting and more positive place to engage in with others, while solidifying your own presence.


There is a conversation underway about the book and ideas on Twitter with the #AnnoConvo hashtag.

Peace (in the margins),
Kevin

 

 

Book Review: A Little Devil In America

I’d like to once again sing the praises of Hanif Abdurraqib, a poet and writer and podcast host, whose books, stories and essays — such as the ones that connect together in woven magic in his latest book, A Little Devil In America (Notes In Praise of Black Performance) — is insightful, emotional, unexpected and deeply attuned to the well of culture.

As a white, middle-class reader, I admittedly may not be his target audience here, as the world he unveils of Black dance, of Black music, and of family and neighborhood relationships is outside my own field of vision (the fault is mine, and maybe people like me, who too often fail to at least acknowledge the rich tapestry of the Black life beyond hip hop).

Abdurraqib’s expert creative command of language, of theme, and of connecting small parcels of story and history to a larger picture that then, quite suddenly and quite beautifully, narrows back to his own life at the end, in a scene between his brother and himself, is something to behold, and something to celebrate. Some chapters here read like poems and unfold like art.

What makes his perspective so interesting to me is his far-reaching love of music — from his discovery of the punk scene in his native Ohio to the emergence of Wu Tang in New York to a celebration of the artistry of Josephine Baker and Merry Clayton, and way beyond – and how he seamlessly shows how one can love a music, be part of that music scene, and still be separate from it, and how those conflicting elements, driven mostly by race, has long been at the heart of a conflicted America.

By the way, Abdurraqib’s podcast — Object of Sound — is also fantastic, as he chats with many creative artists on a variety of topics, some which resonate with this book and some with his other books. I still have to dig into his poetry, too.

Peace (sounding it out),
Kevin