Milan: A Treasure for the Traveling Bibliophile

While we struggle to keep our independent bookstores alive here in the United States, those in Italy appear to be thriving. At almost any turn in Milan, tiny bookstores are warmly tucked into the deep, ancient facades that crowd and curve through the city. This bookstore is nestled in a fairly quiet corner and might have been easily missed had I not been staying across the street.

One of the highlights of Milan for me were the small stands that raise their arthritic arms to reveal rows of used books of every genre. The vender fidgets close by while pedestrians take their time perusing titles or looking for that special treasure.

Books and art often hold hands. Should you make it to Milan, don’t miss out on seeing Leonardo DaVinci’s The Last Supper, which is housed at Santa Maria delle Grazie. I was completely unprepared for the painting’s magnificence. A bookstore is attached but absolutely no pictures are permitted.

*Support your local bookstores, libraries, and universities. It matters.

Post by Megan Shaffer

Precision Powers Terry Blackhawk’s ‘The Light Between’

The Light Between by Terry M. Blackhawk

– Review by writer and blogger Maggie Lane

Most books of poetry are like shuffled playlists:  where you begin and where you end are beside the point. But anyone reading Terry Blackhawk’s latest collection at random will miss one of the many pleasures of the book.  The intricate order of the poems in The Light Between unfolds a progression of healing as intimate as any memoir.

Blackhawk’s divorce after a 30-year partnership sets the book in motion, or rather deposits Blackhawk in one of those “in between” times so unnerving in a culture that marks time with status updates. In between jobs, in between symptom and diagnosis, in between youth and old age, and in this collection, in between losing love and finding it again, are uncomfortable spaces but spaces ripe for discovery and for poetry.  The in-between is where Blackhawk eventually finds the light in the collection’s title.

The book begins with an empty bed and an unrequited desire for the lover who vacated it.  Desire turns to rage in “Medea—Garland of Fire,” a searing re-telling of the Greek sorceress’ revenge on the man who abandoned her for a younger woman.  Hell-hath-no-fury finds a fresh voice in Blackhawk’s hands:

These days I think emptiness

enrages most, flesh that cannot forget

its hunger turned to anger, blown

useless petals.  Among my people

women have ways of remaining 

supple with desire. Why do you scoff

at these offerings?

A cultural distaste for sexual passion in “women of a certain age” bestows on Medea a useful invisibility in her plot to murder Jason’s young bride:

I will put on a shawl

of smoke and haze.  Drape myself

in the gray peace of the dove.

I will be, quietly, like ashes

concealing fire.

But Fatal Attraction this is not. Sadness, not rage, is the weightiest emotion of the book’s early poems.  Everything reminds Blackhawk of her loss, of the years/he tossed like fish, back into the water:  the pulling down of her old roof (Who’d have thought a slow rot/ would have such fervor to it), a hearing loss, empty cicada shells, even household bills (the mute/ mail you forward, terse notes of interest to be paid).

Her sadness never turns mawkish or self-indulgent.  Bitterness is not her stock in trade.  She observes her own emotions as she observes the birds that animate the poems (Blackhawk is a birdwatcher):  patiently, precisely, with wonder and a poet’s relish of the extraordinary.

Her progression towards healing unfolds seamlessly, naturally.  In “The Eggplant” she sweeps a shriveled eggplant from behind a cabinet and sees in it a mirror of her own circumstance:

It had transformed

Silently, and without obvious flourish,

Until I poked around and found the beauty of it.

Blackhawk sequences her poems with the care of a master gardener, positioning poems to foil and highlight each other.  The eggplant poem is followed by “I Think of My Ex Husband Standing in the Sunlight” in which a frozen tree frog she keeps on her desk becomes a stand-in for her ex.  (A novel technique for dealing with those who hurt us.)  The juxtaposition of the two poems says what she will not:  she has evolved, but he’s frozen in time, unable to change.

The Light Between closes with a reversal of the empty bed that began it.  In the playful “Imagining Billy,” an unlikely sex object lounges in her bed:  poet Billy Collins in flannel pajamas.  Collins is too busy writing poems to engage her desire.  But this poem is followed by the full-fledged erotic coupling of “Into the Canopy” and a sweet love poem, “Not Wafting but Dofting,” light as the air that flows through it.

The movement from pain to healing forms the arc that structures the book, but The Light Between is more than a recovery memoir to be gifted to the newly divorced.  Vivid, precise language, not divorce, powers the book; and more so than lost love, birds populate its pages.  In fact, she can’t seem to keep birds and all manner of flying things—angels, skywriting planes–out of her poems.  The freedom of bird flight, the art of bird song, the beauty and variation of bird species all captivate her imagination and give occasion to many beautiful images. But it’s the elusiveness of birds that figures most in this collection.  Birds come and birds go, like love, like the muse itself.

Award-winning Terry Blackhawk lives and writes in Detroit.  She is the founder and director of Inside/Out, a writer-in-residence program in the Detroit school system.  The Light Between is her sixth book of poetry.

*Support your local bookstores, libraries, and universities. It matters.

-The Light Between was published by Wayne State University Press

– Please link here for more from writer Maggie Lane

Nicola’s Books Stacks Stellar Appearances This Week

Dust to DustNicola’s Books in Ann Arbor has plenty on tap for local readers this week.

On Tuesday evening, actor and author Benjamin Busch will be appearing at Nicola’s Books for a discussion and signing of his memoir, Dust to Dust. Busch, who currently lives in Reed City, Michigan, was born in Manhattan and grew up in upstate New York. He is an actor, photographer, film director, and a United States Marine Corps Infantry Officer who served two tours of combat duty in Iraq. In addition, he has appeared in the HBO series The Wire, Homicide, The West Wing, and Generation Kill.

Acting aside, Busch’s memoir is a heavy, thoughtful read that utilizes the elemental (water, metal stone, blood, etc) as device for examining the brevity of our existence.

Dust to Dust will hit stores this Tuesday, which happily coincides with Busch’s appearance at Nicola’s. The discussion and signing will take place on March 20, 2012 at 7:00 pm. For more on Benjamin and Dust to Dust, try this recent piece in the Detroit Free Press.

The Boiling Season: A Novel

Also appearing this week at Nicola’s Books is author and debut novelist Christopher Hebert. Hebert is a graduate of Antioch College and earned his MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan, and was awarded its prestigious Hopwood Award for Fiction. Currently, he teachers at the University of Tennessee and lives in Knoxville with his wife and son.

The Boiling Season, Hebert’s debut novel, is a stunner thus far (I’m halfway through), and I’m quite shocked Hebert isn’t getting more airtime for this richly detailed and beautifully written work.

Hebert’s discussion and signing of The Boiling Season will take place Thursday, March 22, 2012 at 7:00 pm. For more with Christopher Hebert you can link to this Metro Pulse interview.

Nicola’s Books is located in the Westgate Shopping Center at 2513 Jackson Avenue in Ann Arbor. As always, events are subject to change so please call first before heading out the door (734.662.0600).

*Support your local bookstores, libraries, and universities. It matters.

– Post by Megan Shaffer

Author Duhigg Sheds Light on ‘The Power of Habit’

Got a few habits you’d like to break? A few well-worn behaviors you just can’t control? Do you wonder why you head to the vending machine for a candy bar each afternoon, drive to Starbucks on autopilot, or can’t quite get those healthful patterns down?

Apparently it’s under your control.

Check out this New York Times review of author and reporter Charles Duhigg’s latest work, The Power of Habit. Duhigg’s recently published work may sound a bit dry, but his book has been garnering both high interest and praise.

The Power of Habit has been making the media rounds and was recently featured in Habits: How They Form and How to Break Them and How You Can Harness the Power of Habit on NPR’s Fresh Air and Morning Edition segments. For more from Duhigg on the science behind habit and its impact on marketing triggers and our day to day behavior, check out his recent article at Slate.

*Support your local bookstores, libraries, and universities. It matters.

-Post by Megan Shaffer

‘Coney Detroit’ Zeroes in on Killer Dogs of the “D”

“Embrace the Coney culture!” In case you didn’t know, Detroit is the world capital of the coney island hot dog – and yes – they are that good.

Wayne State University Press will soon release Coney Detroit by Katherine Yung and Joe Grimm. Check out the Detroit-based book trailer here, and be sure to stop in at the Wayne State University Press site for more information on Coney Detroit and other fine titles.

*Support your local bookstores, libraries, and universities. It matters.

– Post by Megan Shaffer

Kudos for Kotlowitz – Award for ‘The Interrupters’ Acknowledges Another Important Work

The incredible efforts and social dedication of Alex Kotlowitz have once again been recognized. The Interrupters, a film by Steve James and Kotlowitz, won Best Documentary at the Film Independent Spirit Awards Saturday night.

The Interrupterstells the moving and surprising story of three ‘violence interrupters’ in Chicago who with bravado, humility and even humor try to protect their communities from the violence they once employed.”

In honor of Kotlowitz’s win, I’m posting a piece I did a few years ago pertaining to the heavy impact his book There Are No Children Here had upon me  while living in Chicago. To get a feel for the powerful, magnanimous art of Kotlowitz, take a look at the trailer for The Interrupters.

NLR – Kotlowitz Perseveres in Granta Piece

Years ago when I was living in Chicago, I read There Are No Children Here by Alex Kotlowitz. Up to that point, Chicago had been my happy college home. The Chicago I had grown to love carried its own energetic pulse with its winking, open-windowed restaurants, beckoning beer gardens, star-lit nights at Wrigley, and the constant comforting rumble of the El. Navigating the Loop and northern neighborhoods both day and night, I believed Chicago to be the friendliest city in the world and couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.

But after my literary introduction to young Lafayette and Pharoah in There Are No Children Here, my view of the city took a different turn – not worse, just different. Realizing these young boys lived mere miles from my Lincoln Park playground left me unable to total the sum of my advantages. How had I been riding the El over the projects for years without truly thinking about the people occupying them?

It is to the credit of Kotlowitz that I began to think outside of my insular box. I began to tutor in Cabrini Green, and upon graduating from Loyola took a teaching job in a poor, tagged pocket on Chicago’s West side. As I slowly peeled back the layers of my privilege, I was quickly made aware of the violence inherent in these communities.

On my first day of teaching, my doe-eyed second grade students informed me that the closest neighboring school wouldn’t be starting until the following day. Why? Because a body had been found in the parking lot and the school needed to be taped off as a crime scene. I was stunned, but based on the kids’ reactions this event seemed a matter of course rather than surprise.

Regardless, I continued to love and live in Chicago for ten more years. Though I still had my fun it came with a deeper understanding of my dual surroundings, and the essence of Kotlowitz’s work filtered into my expanding view of privilege and poverty.

I now write this from my home in Michigan, which sits within the borders of my youth a mere twenty minutes from Detroit. However, while I’ve settled into a quieter appreciation of suburban life, Alex Kotlowitz is still hard at work. With the arrival of my most recent issue of Granta, I realize Mr. Kotlowitz continues his attempt to create some understanding of the incomprehensible.

His Granta contribution Khalid is a brief, heartbreaking work which looks at the people behind the violence that continues to puncture the heart of Chicago. It is a work that translates to any major American city, including Detroit, that suffers the pointless murder of its youth.

So, as my content life buzzes along with errands, carpools, work and quick trips to Target, it is with sheer admiration that I once again read the work of Mr. Kotlowitz – a man who has valiantly dedicated himself to recognizing the gross racial and social discrepancies of our time.

Other works by Alex Kotlowitz:

There Are No Children Here

The Other Side of the River

Never a City So Real: A Walk in Chicago

-Post by Megan Shaffer

Everyone’s Reading ‘Lethal’ by Sandra Brown

Lethal is the book that Everyone’s Reading in the metro area this year. The annual “Everyone’s Reading” program, which is sponsored by the Detroit public libraries in Oakland and Wayne counties, have chosen author Sandra Brown’s novel Lethal as their 2012 selection.

Now in its eleventh year, the Everyone’s Reading program was established to enhance the reading experience by sharing a single title throughout the community. Participating libraries are set to offer book events such as group discussions, appearances by Sandra Brown, and related topic presentations to facilitate dialogue.

According to this year’s Everyone’s Reading Reader’s Guide, best-selling author Sandra Brown has been praised by critics for her “storytelling ability” and “the way she is able to combine strong female characters with plots so complex and fast-paced that her readers are constantly challenged to figure out what might happen next.”

Anyone can get involved in the program by participating in the various  events listed by both date and library location on the Everyone’s Reading homepage. The Baldwin Public Library in Birmingham will be shelving extra copies of Lethal, stocking reader’s guides, and facilitating two librarian-led book group discussions that are open to everyone.

This year’s Everyone’s Reading program runs through March 22, 2012. Due to high demand, free tickets for Ms. Brown’s speaking appearances will be distributed by Baldwin Public Library through lottery for residents of Birmingham, Beverly Hills, Bingham Farms and Bloomfield Hillls. For more information call 248-647-1700.

*Support your local bookstores, libraries, and universities. It matters.

-Post by Megan Shaffer

National Writers Series and Beyond – A Book Lover’s Trip Worth Taking

There’s good reason why Traverse City was recently ranked as a top city for book lovers. Not only does this lakeshore city hum a little literary tune all its own, but it also falls in line with a mighty band of independent booksellers strung in solidarity along Michigan’s stunning northern shores.

These indies, each offering their respective knowledge and charms, compliment rather than compete through their pure, unmitigated passion for the literary arts. Such cumulative verve for the book is palpable, and has many readers road-tripping North for more than cherry pie.

One of the key draws of the much-talked-about Traverse City lit scene, however, is undoubtedly the National Writers Series. “Some observers believe that Traverse City’s growing reputation as a city of book lovers can also be attributed to the National Writers Series,” asserts Publisher’s Weekly in Traverse City is for Book Lovers. Brainchild of TC native and author Doug Stanton, the National Writers Series was founded in 2009 and continues to flourish with each new season.

The Detroit News recently featured the man behind the NWS magic, noting Stanton’s dedication not only to the art of writing, but to its future voices as well. “You don’t often get a chance to water your own roots, but that’s what he’s doing with every session,” states the Detroit News. “The events raise money for scholarships and the Front Street Writers Program, a workshop for talented high school students.”

The NWS brings at least one celebrity author each month to Traverse City for a reading and discussion of their work. The ticketed event is usually held in TC’s 19th-century opera house. This year’s lineup includes authors Jodi Picoult, Anna Quindlen, and Geraldine Brooks among others. Also, the incredibly popular Harvard professor Michael Sandel will appear to discuss What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets.

For book lovers like myself who live in the Detroit metro area, Traverse City can feel like a world away. However, with the flavorful Writers Series and an incredible string of informed independents both in and outside the city, I can assure you that the drive Up North is definitely a trip worth taking.

*Support your local bookstores, libraries, and universities. It matters.

-Post by Megan Shaffer

Natalie Taylor Brings ‘Signs of Life’ to Birmingham Biggby Coffee

Signs of Life: A MemoirWhat do you do if you’re 24 years old, five months pregnant, and your husband suddenly – tragically – dies? If you’re Natalie Taylor, you write one honestly good book. Yes, we all know that shelves sag with overdone memoirs of tainted childhoods, deeds done wrong, and ruined lives, but Taylor defies the dark and opts to soar instead with this tight uplifter, Signs of Life.

Natalie’s husband Josh Taylor died on Father’s Day of 2007. He was 27 years old, married to the woman he loved, and happily awaiting the birth of their first child. Who would have thought that a quick blow to the back of his head while Carveboarding would put an end to his own life just as the one he created was beginning to bloom?

Signs of Life is the narrative compilation of Natalie Taylor’s journal entries that span the year following her husband’s death, yet Taylor’s pragmatic approach toward handling her grief is precisely what lands Signs of Life in its own little camp of the genre. Though Taylor’s voice cuts with pure pain and candor, she unwittingly softens the blow with her straight-forward sincerity and unwavering humor.

“When I decide to do something, I want it done quickly. I do not dilly-dally. When Dr. G. told me that grief takes time, I wanted to say, ‘But what about for the smart kids?’ I took Advanced Placement Calculus in high school. Let’s talk Advanced Placement Grief. But one of the first things I realize about this stupid emotion is that AP Grief does not exist. Time goes by, weeks pass, a month passes, my belly grows, my hair grows, but when I wake up in the morning it feels exactly the same. Grief goes at its own speed.”

As Taylor begins to piece together the brokenness of her life, the fog of her grief lifts just enough to reveal a bit more of both herself and the world around her. Through Josh’s death, Taylor is inadvertently exposed to life outside of the insulated bubble in which she grew up. Instead of self-absorption with her own sorrows, Taylor finds in herself an unexpected wellspring of compassion and understanding for all walks of life.

Taylor is a high school English teacher, and she structures Signs of Life around the books she teaches and those that pass through her hands the year after Josh’s death. Seeking solace through literature, Taylor looks to some heavy hitters for help. Alice Walker, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ralph Waldo Emerson are but a few of the many authors who step up to hold Taylor’s grieving hand.

Also balanced by the support of some killer friends and family, Taylor puts you on a nickname basis with Ads, Matthews, Moo and more, but it’s never overdone. Taylor’s memoir is incredibly fresh and breathes life and hilarity into the not-so-funny-at-all realm of death, darkness and grief. While Signs of Life is based on Josh Taylor’s terribly sad and untimely death, one can’t miss the budding evolution of a determined woman, a beautiful baby boy, and the incredible ongoing power of life.

*Support your local bookstores, libraries, and universities. It matters.

– Post by Megan Shaffer

Ayad Akhtar’s ‘American Dervish’ – Muslim from the Midwest

American DervishAyad Akhtar’s anticipated debut novel, American Dervish, hit shelves this past Monday. Though I reviewed it for the upcoming issue at Bookbrowse.com, I will share that it is a solid, accessible work that both delights and disturbs.

Akhtar is an American-born, first-generation Pakistani-American from Milwaukee. As such, there’s an authenticity to his work that offers readers an open, innocent approach to Islam, and allows an inside look at Muslim life in America prior to 9/11.

It will come as no surprise to readers of Dervish that Akhtar is a screenwriter. Entertaining yet provoking, Dervish is a page-flipper that will leave those in the movie industry fighting for film rights.

Ayad Akhtar on American Dervish

Review Links (Beware of possible spoilers)

NPR – Growing Up Muslim and Midwestern in ’Dervish’

New York Times – Stumbling Through an American Muslim Maze

*Support your local bookstores, libraries and universities. It matters.

-Post by Megan Shaffer