On March 28, 1968 in Memphis, shop windows broke and mace-triggered tears flowed when African American sanitation workers marched to protest dangerous and inhumane working conditions; within days, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel kicked off a period of riots and mourning nationwide. Forty years later, Barack Obama was elected President of the United States. So, we’re all good now, right? In his newest novel Grant Park, Pulitzer Prize winner Leonard Pitts Jr. looks at the complicated dance of race relations as played out by two aging Chicago journalists whose lives intersected in 1968.
On the eve of the 2008 election, African American syndicated columnist Malcolm Toussaint, a man showered with professional accolades and prizes, enjoying the trappings of the upper middle class, has written a final piece in which he declares he is “sick and tired of white folks’ bullshit.” And, everyone knows Malcolm is tired of white folks because despite his white editor, Bob Carson, telling him this column cannot run, Malcolm sneaks onto the office computers and inserts it into the Chicago Post’s front page. Fall-out is swift; Malcolm is now jobless and the newspaper management team also fires Bob. An angry Bob sets out to find Malcolm, who has disappeared. Instead of hiding from everyone’s wrath, Malcolm’s been abducted by a Frick and Frack pair of suicidal white supremacists who intend to strap Malcolm to the front of their explosive-filled van like a hood ornament and blow them all to kingdom come at Grant Park as the first black POTUS makes his election night speech.
Pitts jumps from Malcolm’s and Bob’s pivotal experiences in the civil rights movement as it moved away from King’s nonviolent preaching to finding both men on the cusp of retirement, their discouraged, sometimes jaded, voices reflecting frustration born of lack of progress. Often farcically funny, Pitts manages to humanize the worst of us while pointing out that we, black and white, have no choice but to work together for change. Meet Leonard Pitts Jr. as he reads from Grant Park and discusses race relations in America today at the Towson Branch on April 23 at 1:30 p.m. as part of the BC Reads: Rise Up! month of events.
April is National Poetry month! Here are some suggestions for the young poets in your life.
Jazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph is an ambitious project by Roxane Orgill, who decided to commemorate an event in jazz history and wound up telling the story through poems by accident. In 1958, Art Kane orchestrated this historic photograph for Esquire magazine, which documented some of the legendary jazz musicians living in New York at the time. Using poetic forms allows Orgill to shift perspectives, so that she can tell the different thoughts and experiences of the photographic subjects — from Thelonious Monk to the kids on the street — and even fit in a few stories of those noticeably absent from the photograph. Francis Vallejo’s accompanying mixed-media drawings beautifully illustrate the imagery described in the poems. It is obvious that Jazz Day is an ode from a true devotee of the music, but it is also an engaging entry point for those unfamiliar with the genre who might like to explore more.
When Green Becomes Tomatoes: Poems for All Seasons is a collection of poems by Julie Fogliano that starts with the spring equinox, March 20th, and documents different days through the rest of the year. Filled with sensual imagery, the poems capture brief personal, meditative moments that signify the changing of seasons and belie a close connection with nature. While reading, it is easy to conjure up the smell of lilacs, the taste of strawberries and the sound of the ocean. Acclaimed artist Julie Morstad’s accompanying illustrations are a perfect fit for depicting these lighthearted and intimate moments.
Younger readers who are still figuring out how poetry works will appreciate the picture book Daniel Finds a Poem by Micha Archer. Follow Daniel as he consults the birds, bugs, squirrels and other animals, asking them “What is poetry?” Readers will see how he incorporates their responses in a grand finale, when he unveils his poem at Poetry in the Park on Sunday. The book’s pages are vibrantly illustrated with cut paper drawings and paintings that rival those of Eric Carle and Lois Ehlert.
David Kushner’s early childhood was near idyllic. Born in 1968 to observant Jewish parents with liberal ideals, Kushner and his two older brothers Jon and Andy had license to roam free in their Tampa suburb. Days were filled with bike rides, games and exploration of the natural world that surrounded both their home and school. But one October afternoon, Jon took a solo ride to the 7-Eleven to buy Snappy Gator Gum for David and himself. He never returned. Alligator Candy: A Memoir is the story of the tragedy that affected not only the Kushner family, but the entire community.
David, a contributing editor for Rolling Stone, a journalism professor at Princeton and an author of several nonfiction titles, tells this deeply personal story with candor and generosity. What does he remember about the last time he saw his brother alive, and can he trust that memory? Would Jon be alive today if almost-5-year-old David hadn’t asked for that gum? The rest of his life from that point forward, was marked by having a brother who had been abducted and murdered. Childhood was no longer safe; his bogeyman was real. Actually, he had two bogeymen — the men who had confessed to treating his brother in a way that was far worse than anything he’d heard from his old edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.
How does a family move on? Kushner credits his parents for allowing him and his older brother the freedom to move beyond the fear, to continue to have as normal a childhood as possible. He acknowledges his Jewish faith, but most importantly the community that came forward to support his family from the moment Jon went missing. As he got older, he knew his memories of his brother’s murder were incomplete, and much of what he thought he knew was based on a combination of overheard conversations, conjecture and rumors. And although he craved answers to what was a mystery to him, he didn’t want to subject his parents to painful recollections.
At 13, he went to the library to request microfilm of The Tampa Tribune from October 1973. What he read satisfied his need for more information, but also led to further questions. One fact remained: He was becoming a man, a bar mitzvah, while Jon would forever remain a boy. Kushner talks about other famous cases involving missing and brutalized children, explaining how laws have come into being as a result. An existing legal loophole allowed for a parole hearing for one of Jon’s killers, compelling David and Andy to testify. The thought of this man possibly getting out into the world was stupefying. The family found justice and some solace in knowing the mastermind of the crime had been executed under the death penalty.
Alligator Candy is a memoir that marks a lifetime of remembering, searching and gathering. The processing will always continue. Kushner's evocative prose took me back to my own early '70s childhood, with just the right period details and nostalgia. Despite its difficult topic, Alligator Candy is compulsively readable and highly recommended.
Immigrating to a new country is hard enough, but when your (sometimes metaphorical, sometimes literal) ghosts travel with you, you need someone who will protect and ward your community from those with malevolent intentions. In The Girl with Ghost Eyes, author M. H. Boroson mixes fantasy, martial arts and Chinese culture to create a thought-provoking tale with a resilient heroine.
Xian Li-lin is a priestess and exorcist of the Maoshan tradition of Daoism living in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1898. After a fellow exorcist attacks her, Li-lin plots to confront her enemy in order to restore honor to herself and to her father, the only family she has left after the death of her husband. She cannot afford to lose any more face since she is already considered something of an outcast due to her widowhood status, and she’s cursed with yin eyes — the ability to see the spirit world. In her quest, she has to navigate not only the power struggles of the rival tongs of male-dominated Chinatown, but also the avenues of the spirit world, home to demons and monsters of all shapes. Unbeknownst to Li-lin and her allies, there is a horrifying plot to unleash a monstrous abomination that exists only to destroy everything in its path. Li-lin will have to challenge both the world of spirits and of men if she is to stop the monster.
The Girl with Ghost Eyes is refreshing because not one character is a stereotype or a caricature. Boroson treats the culture and history from which he draws his fictional Chinatown with respect and honesty, keeping the depictions of Chinese and Chinese immigrants’ culture and Maoshan tradition as close to reality as possible. Li-lin is a fantastic reluctant hero struggling through an almost impossible task simply because no one else will. She’s not the only person who can succeed in stopping the plotters, but she is the only person who keeps trying to do so.
This book reads like a detective noir crossed with the best kung fu movies, with lots of action and characters that are well-rounded, conflicted and complex. Li-lin will resonate with fans of Garth Nix’s Sabriel. This is also the first book in her series, promising lots of future ghost adventures to come.
Life is Far from Fair for Odette Zyskowski in Elana K. Arnold’s new novel. If it had been put to a vote, Odette would not have elected to sell her family home, move into an ugly RV and share one cell phone with her quarreling parents and volatile younger brother. But her father didn’t ask for Odette’s opinion before quitting his job and uprooting the family, and the list of unfair occurrences in her life has begun to pile up at a rapid pace as they travel to Grandma Sissy’s home. However, none of the problems and predicaments along the way compares to the unfairness Odette discovers when they arrive.
When Odette and Grandma Sissy are discussing how powerless Odette feels during this time of upheaval, Grandma Sissy reveals what Odette calls a “grownup truth” — those things grownups know to be true, but don’t typically share: Sometimes you are powerless. Sometimes, bad things happen and we can't stop them. This book contains many such grownup truths, but Arnold does not preach to or talk down to her readers. Hard subjects are confronted gently but directly.
The settings, all the way from suburban California to Washington’s Orcas Island, as well as the difficulties of living in an RV, are so superbly described it may leave you wondering if the author herself ever embarked on such a road trip. The book does indeed have true life beginnings: After Arnold’s husband was laid off, they sold their home and belongings and hit the open road. Meanwhile, Arnold pursued her dream of being a writer. Far from Fair is her sixth novel for teen and young readers.
For more well-written children’s fiction that confronts issues of family life and illness, check out So B. It by Sarah Weeks and Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata.
Was Ramona Quimby one of your best friends? Did you want a mouse on a motorcycle? Then you enjoyed the imaginative and timeless worlds created by Beverly Cleary. Cleary’s wonderful books have impacted generations of readers and, today, as she celebrates her 100th birthday, we pay homage to a standard bearer of children’s literature.
Cleary noted that when she a child in the 1920s and as a young librarian, almost all of the children’s books she came across were about kids in England. Determined to offer children something more relatable, she put pen to paper with a simple writing style infused with humor and a story based on common human experiences. Her first book, Henry Huggins, published in 1950, was about a boy, his dog and their friends, all of whom lived on Klickitat Street in Portland, a street in Cleary’s childhood neighborhood. According to Cleary, Henry Huggins and the other child characters in the book were based on children she grew up with and those who attended story time at her library. She would go on to write several more books about Henry Huggins and his friends, including the Quimby sisters, who would be featured in their own books, the first of which, Beezus and Ramona, was published in 1955.
Popular with children, she was also a favorite with critics who recognized her skill and talent with numerous awards, including the National Book Award, the Newbery Medal and the National Medal of Arts. Cleary's books have been published in 20 different languages, and 91 million copies of her books have been sold worldwide since 1950. Indeed, her popularity is just as strong in Baltimore County with all of her titles in all formats circulating almost 4,000 times this year alone! A few weeks ago, Cleary sat with The Today Show for an interview where she was asked about this milestone and her career and she said she’s proudest of the simple fact that "children love my books."
Yann Martel hit superstardom in 2001 when Life of Pi was published. Soon thereafter, in 2002, won The Man Booker Prize. In this year’s The High Mountains of Portugal, Martel seeks the surreal in order to make better sense of the sorrows of life.
The High Mountains of Portugal is actually three loosely interrelated novellas, the longest of which is the first: “Homeless.” Set in Portugal, 1904, “Homeless” stars Tomas, a man who has lost his child, his lover and his father over a fairly short time. For obvious reasons, he feels betrayed by the world and by God, so betrayed in fact, that he has decided to walk backward for the rest of his life. This causes his uncle great consternation when he tries to show Tomas how to drive one of those new-fangled automobiles. It’s all fun and games until Tomas runs into his greatest tragedy and finds exactly what he thought he was looking for.
In part two, “Homeward,” Eusebio is a pathologist, and his town is in the shadows of the mountains of Portugal. Over the dying hours of the last day of 1938, Eusebio has a deep conversation with his wife regarding how Agatha Christie’s novels relate to the mysteries of the Bible. And then things take a turn for the weird. Magical realism sneaks into the office in the guise of a dead man and his wife. What Eusebio finds within and what he does thereafter must be read to be believed.
Finally, in “Home,” Peter, a member of the Canadian Senate, has a breakdown. His wife is sick. His son is going through a bitter divorce. What better time to quit and run to his ancestral home in the mountains of Portugal with an ape named Odo?
How do all of these things fit together? What is Yann Martel trying to say? What’s with all the animals? How are humans to deal with such grief? It is not until the very end, until the final story ties all of the stories together, that the ultimate epiphany is realized by the reader.
Readers who enjoyed Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil will derive even greater enjoyment from this journey through humility, hubris and the examination of what it might mean to be human.