Poetry in Motion

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer

Low on inspiration? Your cup will spilleth over when you read The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, the true story of an African boy who refused to give up on his dream despite incredible odds. Armed with a burning desire to learn, a mind wired for invention, and a tremendous love of his family and motherland, William Kamkwamba takes you to the Malawi of his childhood where necessity first forced his wheels to turn.

Sitting at his father’s feet, young William listened attentively to the storytelling that explained the reasons for the pervasive magic that permeates the logic of Malawians and much of Africa; how magic has been with them from the beginning. “In a land of poor farmers, there were too many troubles for God and man alone. To compensate for this imbalance, he said, magic existed as a third and powerful force.”

As William grew, he quickly understood the need for some belief system to justify the instability and hardships of farming. In 2002, as the scorching sun and angry rains of Africa withered the country’s food supply, William lived in helpless horror as his family struggled to survive on one scant meal each day. Widespread famine brought the bloated bellies and hollowed eyes of starvation into the homes of William’s beloved friends and neighbors. Watching the thin wisps of his fellow countrymen being swept away, William decidedly opted for science over magic.

“No more skipping breakfast; no more dropping out of school. With a windmill, we’d finally release ourselves from the troubles of darkness and hunger. In Malawi, the wind was one of the few consistent things given to us by God, blowing in the treetops day and night. A windmill meant more than just power, it was freedom.”

It was on this wave of thought that the ever resourceful William scraped and scavenged from his surroundings in hopes of creating his “electric wind”. By having a power source, William could generate both electricity and the power to irrigate crops, ultimately providing two annual yields instead of one. So, with enviable tenacity and the loyalty of friends, William managed to construct his windmill despite the scoffs and taunts of “madman” coming from town. Slowly but surely persistence paid off, and the wind of William Kamkwamba’s machine became headline news.

In essence, this is the story about the wonder of a child and the fruition of his dream. It is a story of purity and unselfishness; a loving quest to better the lives of others. It is the coming together of belief, science, technology, and people who work to improve the plights of our planet. But more than that, it reinforces our most important resource after all: the human heart. Perhaps there is magic in Africa in the person of William Kamkwamba, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.

-Review by Megan Shaffer

*For related information, please try these links but be aware that they might provide plot spoilers. As always, reading the book first is optimal:

Bryan Mealer is the co-author of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

Video presentation by William Kamkwamba

BBC article on the 2002 famine in Malawi

Picture of William Kamkwamba with his windmill

TED technology page

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Nice Work Santa!

Somehow Santa squeezed his big self down my chimney carrying Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, recipient of this year’s Man Booker Prize along with titles Love and Summer, POPS:  A Life of Louis Armstrong, and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals. Nice work Santa! Since I plan on devouring this fresh material, I won’t post  until the first of the new year. Happy Reading-

-Post by Megan Shaffer

The Christmas Cookie Club

The Christmas Cookie ClubCute, cute, cute, and just in the nick of time for Christmas. Ann Pearlman’s The Christmas Cookie Club is a charming novel for those of us who have been blessed with the love and friendship of good gal pals.

To oversimplify, The Christmas Cookie Club is about a group of women who meet every year to exchange holiday cookies and recipes. However, anyone who has experience with long-term friendships knows that these relationships shift and change with each passing year. And so it is with the “cookie club”, which converges in main character Marnie’s Ann Arbor home the first, frosty Monday of December.

Ann Pearlman’s chapters cleverly begin with a legit cookie recipe that also assists in fleshing out her characters. The choice of cookie, the way the recipe is written, and the presentation of cookies are representative of Marnie’s friends along with her unique tie to each woman and the history of their friendship.

Covering love, loss, and joy, The Christmas Cookie Club is a festive expression of gratitude for the privilege of friendship and the hands we hold through life’s twists and turns. You will quickly find familiar faces in those of club members, and smile in spite of yourself as the images and personalities of your own friends gradually sneak in.

The Christmas Cookie Club is a work more sincere than serious, yet with its winsome characters and heartfelt look at the passage of time, it’s no wonder the film rights have already been acquired (think Steel Magnolias). This quick, snappy book certainly leaves a smile and is perfect for passing on to those who hold a special place.

*Try this Free Press article for more on Ann Pearlman and her real-life cookie club.

-Post by Megan Shaffer

Floodgate at the Stairs

Lorrie Moore’s novel A Gate at the Stairs was released to much praise and fanfare. After reading glows from the New York Times, Washington Post, and several other high profile publications I was sure I was in for something spectacular. Then I read it.

Maybe I am missing a literary chip, but this book just didn’t do it for me. After the main character Tassie takes a nanny position in her undisclosed college town for a “quasi”-anonymous couple, Moore takes us on a freakish journey covering just about every contemporary hot-button topic.

Touted as a “post 9/11” tale (I’m not exactly sure what that means), A Gate at the Stairs touches on everything from racism to terrorism to bigotry to elitism to war to fertility to infidelity to adoption to religion to neglect…you get the picture, and no, I’m not joking. Sadly, it’s all left in dangling shreds and nothing seems to resolve. Perhaps that is the point? Is that post 9/11?

The most unfortunate piece of this fragmented puzzle is that Ms. Moore’s writing is quite beautiful when it’s not quite so manic. Her unstoppable script leaves no room for the reader’s imagination, and only when she slows her frantic pace are we allowed to breathe in Moore’s magic. Her ability to capture in lovely, unsuspecting ways is sadly overridden by chronic observation and sarcasm.

A reviewer for Publisher’s Weekly stated that there was “much to love, much to hate” in A Gate at the Stairs, and I suppose in this I agree. As an individual read you will benefit from Moore’s creative language and widen your literary scope. However, I wouldn’t recommend this one as a book club choice; too much, too muddled, and too politically tedious.

-Post by Megan Shaffer

Albom Brings “A Little Faith” to Borders

Nationally acclaimed sportswriter Mitch Albom will appear at Borders Books in Utica on Tuesday, December 22 at 7:30 for a signing of his latest book Have a Little Faith. This is Mr. Albom’s first nonfiction book since his inspirational hit Tuesdays With Morrie.

Aside from his Detroit Free Press contributions, Albom tirelessly works for the betterment of Detroit and currently heads up  A Hole in the Roof Foundation which aims “…to help faith groups of every denomination who care for the homeless repair the spaces in which they carry out their work and offer their services.”

For more information on Mitch Albom, click here to surf his extensive (and very cool) website. Make sure you link over to sample music from Christmas in Detroit, a CD compiled by local musicians for the holiday season. All proceeds from purchases assist in supporting S.A.Y. Detroit, yet another philanthropic endeavor from Mr. Albom.

-Post by Megan Shaffer

Bad Things Happen

It’s true that bad things happen, but are we supposed to enjoy them so much when they do? In Harry Dolan’s Bad Things Happen, half the fun is waiting out the next “bad thing” (of which there are plenty) while the other is enjoying the ride.

Bad Things Happen is…well…sexy. From the alluring, yet solitary main character David Loogan, right down to the seductive college vibe of Ann Arbor itself, Mr. Dolan hooks you up with a delicious murder that fills you with a sweet, edgy unease. As his sultry characters glide in and out of focus, you are left exponentially wondering who in the world you can trust.

After David Loogan becomes inadvertently involved with the mystery magazine Gray Streets, his quiet low-key life somehow slips into a sea of complicated suspicion. However, Mr. Loogan’s appeal lies in his subtle, easy dialogue and blithe manner towards all things homicidal.

As Loogan makes his way through the maze of Gray Street personalities in hopes of solving his friend’s murder, he encounters one Elizabeth Waishkey. Elizabeth is a cop who is also intent on solving the murder, but is saddled with the snag of distancing herself from the ambiguous Loogan, who is a promising prime suspect with each turn of the page.

As Waishkey works on Loogan, and Loogan works on his own, this shadowy tale is spun on pure Ann Arbor background, bringing about a well-deserved nod for this progressive midwestern pocket. Matched in sophisticated tones, Ann Arbor provides the perfect setting for Dolan’s sleek, hard-boiled fiction.

“Ann Arbor has the street life of a much larger city,” writes Dolan. “When the weather is fair, and sometimes when it’s not, the sidewalks along State Street and Liberty and Main bustle with people:  hip, arty, confident people who walk to theaters and shops, bookstores and coffeehouses, who gather at sidewalk tables that spill out of restaurants.”

Bad Things Happen brings in the sharp, classic styles of other noir lit authors such as Raymond Chandler, who is mentioned more than once in the book. But even if you are not a seasoned mystery reader (like myself) Harry Dolan’s seductive style easily translates. Mr. Dolan’s work is fun, and mentally unspools itself in close-up, pan-back fashion. Like a smooth, smoky Hollywood flick, Bad Things Happen definitely has movie rights potential but for now I highly suggest kicking back and enjoying it just the way it is.

-Post by Megan Shaffer

She’s Baaaacccckkk – Nanny Returns

Nanny ReturnsChick lit is not my genre of choice. However, I did love The Nanny Diaries for its wounding, clever exposure of the child-rearing practices of Manhattan’s elite. Apparently after a seven year Nanny hiatus, authors Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus are back at it with Nanny Returns. Check out this HuffPost piece “Nanny Diaries” Authors Return With New Nanny Tale for more on the authors and their admirable take on publishing their work.

-Post by Megan Shaffer

My Top Ten Faves for 2009

books in a stack (a stack of books) by austinevan.Well, I have to do it sometime so it might as well be now. Below I have posted My Top 10 Selections for books published in 2009. Though my “to read” stack still holds a few titles that would potentially bump a couple off of this list, it’s not likely that I will finish them before the new year. Therefore, I offer these up along with with my yearly lament…so many books,so little time…

MY TOP TEN SELECTIONS FOR 2009

Annie’s Ghosts:  A Journey Into a Family Secret by Steve Luxenberg

Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon

Bad Things Happen by Harry Dolan

Brooklyn:  A Novel by Colm Toibin

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

Half Broke Horses:  A True-Life Novel by Jeannette Walls

Homer & Langley by E.L. Doctorow

Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line by Martha A. Sandweiss

The Big Burn:  Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America by Timothy Egan

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

-Post by Megan Shaffer

Modern Manipulation Endangers Wild Things

Back in September I voiced my opinion on the modern-day spin of Where the Wild Things Are in a post titled Why, Mr. Eggers, Why? After viewing the movie version of Maurice Sendak’s classic last night,  I must now confirm my initial suspicions that some things are definitely better left untouched. My original post follows below…

Why, Mr. Eggers, Why?

After recently reading a fiction piece in The New Yorker titled Max At Sea, I am officially intrigued, if not perplexed, by Dave Eggers. I have followed his progression from A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, to his internet publication McSweeney’s, to his recent Away We Go venture on the big screen, and wonder if the man has time to sleep. If you follow Mr. Eggers, it is also likely that you are aware of his incredible and tireless humanitarian efforts and drive to increase literacy among children; to all of these pursuits I tip my hat. That being said, I did find myself searching for words to articulate my reaction to the peculiar Max At Sea piece which is based on Maurice Sendak’s classic Where the Wild Things Are.

In Egger’s version, Max is the product of an absentee father. He resides with his mother, her “chinless boyfriend” Gary, and his sister Claire upon whom he wishes death by “flesh-eating tapeworms”. Actually, Max wishes all of them serious bodily harm which seems a touch more extreme than the “mischief” referred to in Sendak’s version (think messy bedrooms and empty cookie boxes). Once modern Max puts on his wolf suit, shouts “Arrrooooooo!” from atop the kitchen counter and proceeds to bite his mother, he’s off like a shot. Though the story continues from there, this is enough to give you the basis for my angst.

Now, I’m all for growth and creative expansion, however, as some things are better left unsaid, so too are some things better left unwritten. When I think of Where the Wild Things Are, I think of that sweetly dark, mysterious, quirky book that still conjures up images of oafish monsters and deep dark seas. It holds within it an innocent theme of escapism that we can all still happily relate to.

However, my disappointment in Mr. Egger’s version is rooted in his attempt to demystify something that has stayed pure for the last forty-six years. The beauty of the story lies in letting the individual imagination take flight (without commercial interruption). Until now, Where the Wild Things Are was one of those precious few childhood treats that had remained untainted and unspoiled. Alas, now that Max has been strapped with a load of modern-day baggage, it is unlikely that I will ever be able to look at him through quite the same eyes. Dave Egger’s interpretation is interesting at best, but sadly, we will all go down with Max’s boat. The movie Where the Wild Things Are was released this past October. Do yourself and your kids a favor: READ THE BOOK FIRST.

Max At Sea appeared in the Aug. 24 edition of the New Yorker.

-Post by Megan Shaffer

2010 Michigan Notable Book Winners!

photo of all books for 2009 MNB
And here they are, the 2010 Michigan Notable Books! You can find more information and my reviews on several of the winners listed below right here on Night Light Revue…

American Salvage:  Stories – This work by Bonnie Jo Campbell was also a National Book Award nominee this year.

Annie’s Ghosts:  A Journey into a Family’s Secret – By Steve Luxenberg

The Art Student’s War:  A Novel – By Brad Leithauser

Bath Massacre:  America’s First School Bombing – By Arnie Bernstein

Fordlandia:  The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City – This work by Greg Grandin was also a National Book Award nominee this year.

Have a Little Faith:  A True Story of a Last Request – By Mitch Albom

Isadore’s Secret:  Sin, Murder, and Confession in a Northern Michigan Town – By Mardi Link

January’s Sparrow – By Patricia Polacco

The Lost Tiki Palaces of Detroit:  Stories – By Michael Zadoorian

Michigan’s Columbus:  The Life of Douglass Houghton – By Steve Lehto

Nothing But a Smile:  A Novel – By Steve Amick

Orlando M. Poe:  Civil War General and Great Lakes Engineer – By Paul Taylor

Our People, Our Journey:  The Little River Band of Ottawa Indians – By James M. McClurken

Pandora’s Locks:  The Opening of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway – By Jeff Alexander

Roses and Revolutions:  The Selected Writings of Dudley Randall – Edited by Melba Joyce Boyd

Season of Water and Ice – By Donald Lystra

Stitches:  A Memoir – By David Small

Travelin’ Man:  On the Road and Behind the Scenes with Bob Seger – By Tom Weschler

Up the Rouge!:  Paddling Detroit’s Hidden River – By Joel Thurtell

When March Went Mad:  The Game That Transformed Basketball – By Seth Davis

*For book summaries and information on the 2010 Michigan Notable Books, click here.

*For general information about the Michigan Notable Books Program, click here.

*For other press releases, try today’s Detroit News or this release from the Michigan Department of Education.

-Post by Megan Shaffer