Staff Picks: Books

A Nelson Mandela Tribute!

How profound! That Maya Angelou’s last book would be His Day Is Done! Like Nelson Mandela, Maya Angelou, the “global renaissance woman”, has been a crusader for many. For me, her life has paralleled Mandela’s. She, too, has opened many doors and as she says in the book about Mandela she has enlarged many hearts with tears of pride.

Though this is a small book of poetry, it makes an awesome footprint and melts a little bit of your heart. And now we can say Her Day is Done.


His Day is Done: a Nelson Mandela Tribute

What does spiritual but not religious mean?

According to Pew, there is a growing number of young Americans that are not affiliated with any particular religion, a.k.a. "nones." This book, a sort of spiritual memoir by Roger Housden, is one example of a "none" trying to keep his faith. Or rather redefine it.

A very short book, almost an extended poem, his faith amounts to this: beauty, nature, kindness and love. Read poetry; look at art; walk in the woods; love people. The book is more like a memoir, a Whitman nature poem, a reflection on faith as solitary, personal, open-ended - a life-journey.

Now, I sympathize with his faith and applaud his ideals, but we must admit that this kind of faith is drastically different from the faith of many other people. That's okay. (disclaimer: I didn't read the entire book so I have no room to comment, but yet here I am commenting). Is Housden merely describing his own happy, privileged, care-free life and calling it faith? Going to Starbucks, writing best sellers, enjoying art and peotry, watching the waves through his window. Sounds great to me! But what happens when you reduce faith into a few ideals? Is anything lost? Perhaps not. Where's the pot-lucks? Mr Housden has redefined faith into a solitary pursuit of truth and beauty (nothing wrong with that, he comes from a long tradition), but let’s be honest - he is getting rid of something here. Or, another way to put it: he probably got rid of his faith, kept a few things from it (truth, beauty, love, awe), and started something new and different.

If you are spiritual-but-not-religious, and you like poetry, you will like this book.


Keeping the faith without a religion

World Book Night 2014

Last week the application to be a Book Giver on World Book Night became available! What is World Book Night? It's an "annual celebration dedicated to spreading the love of reading, person to person." Book Givers give out 20 copies of a book they love to adults and teens who may not have access to reading materials.

The folks behind World Book Night also revealed the titles that will be given out by tens of thousands of people in their communities on April 23, 2014. The list of titles includes some of my favorites, like Catch-22 by Joseph Heller and Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain.

The deadline to apply to be a Book Giver is January 5, 2014. Apply here. Kalamazoo Public Library will again serve as a pick up site for Book Givers.


Kitchen Confidential

The Poetry of John Berryman

John Berryman is the kind of poet that has always interested me. He was an emotionally tormented soul for most of his life and whose complicated verse radiated both a deep intelligence and humane tenderness, sometimes within a single line. His most famous work, the epic Dream Songs series, is considered by many critics to be among the best written, if not some of the most highly influential poetry of the post-war period. Berryman’s work is difficult to describe but he’s often lumped in with the Confessional Poets (see: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton). One moment, Berryman’s voice is raw and revealing, the next, lyrically abstract but heartbreakingly profound. For those looking into his work, I recommend the Dream Songs, a masterful work that like Whitman's Leaves of Grass, Pound's Cantos or Olson's Maximus Poems, possesses both variety and thematic continuity.


John Berryman: Collected Poems


Water Sings Blue

What caught my eye was the cover . . . it looks like summer. Mielo So’s watercolor painting of a beach scene promises lovely things inside. Here are the first and last couplets of the poem called “What the Waves Say”:

“Shimmer and run, catch the sun.
Ripple thin, catch the wind.

Roll green, rise and lean—
wake and roar and strike the shore.”

Kate Coombs’ poems are a mix of playfulness and mystery; Water Sings Blue is a lovely collection that is just right for reading aloud with kids.


Water Sings Blue

House Held Up By Trees

Even though the cover of House Held Up By Trees has a melancholy look, the soft and gentle words tell a story that feels like a magical secret . . . an abandoned house that is lifted off its sterile foundation by the trees growing up around it. Poet Ted Kooser and illustrator Jon Klassen have created a quiet and thoughtful picture book that deserves to be seen beyond the walls of the Children’s Room.


House Held Up By Trees

Mary Oliver

As others on the library blog have written, April is National Poetry Month. While I was in college, one of my dearest friends introduced me to Mary Oliver, who became one of my favorite poets. Maxine Kumin, another of America’s great poets, described Oliver as an “indefatigable guide to the natural world.” Oliver is known to acquire much of her inspiration from walks near her home in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and writes almost exclusively about nature. KPL has a nice collection of her work.

This video features Oliver reading a few of her poems, including one of my favorites, “Wild Geese”.

Other poets I recommend include Anna Akhmatova, Fleur Adcock, Marina Tsvetaeva, and Dorothy Parker.


Why I Wake Early

My Name is Sally Little Song

Sally May Harrison is a slave. Pa learns that Master is planning to sell her and her brother, Abraham, so Pa plans for the whole family to run away from the plantation. They encounter many terrors and tragedy en route. Ultimately, Sally’s family finds and lives with a tribe of Seminole people.

I was moved by the poetry at the beginning of each chapter of My Name is Sally Little Song, by Brenda Woods. Sally makes up songs, like her Mama taught her to do. With very few words, her songs capture the essence of what she and her family experience.

Pa tells the family they are leaving “day after t’morrow afore sunrise,” and to keep it a secret…”send no one a farewell look with your eyes.” The following chapter starts with:

“Gotta look down
Into the dirt all day
Or my brown eyes
Is sure to give us away”

Sally’s family travels at night, in hopes of escaping notice. When they get to swampland, her poem both describes the feeling in the swamp and foreshadows danger:

Grass wet
Beneath my feet
Owls say
Night bugs fly
Snakes wriggle
Gators chomp

Woods is the author of a 2003 Coretta Scott King Honor book, The Red Rose Box.


My Name is Sally Little Song

Love Part 20: Milton

Milton (Paradise Lost), in true Enlightenment fashion, says that love is based on reason, not on passion:

“In loving thou dost well, in passion not,
Wherein true Love consists not; love refines
The thoughts, and heart enlarges, hath his seat
In Reason, and is judicious”

Love isn't willy nilly, spur-of-the-moment stuff. It obeys rules. It carves out its' actions with obedience to higher laws, principles, and ideals:

“Be strong, live happy, and love, but first of all
Him whom to love is to obey, and keep
His great command”

This sounds like Hobbes focus on obedience, and Jesus's "he who loves me will obey my teaching."

Sometimes love can be nasty, right? Dalia, after betraying Sampson in one poem, is trying to justify her actions. She asks: “And what if Love...Caus’d what I did?” To which he answers “Love seeks to have Love” and “But had thy love…Bin, as it ought, sincere, it would have taught thee Far other reasonings, brought forth other deeds.”

Love doesn't breed hate; it doesn't "reason" that way. Forgivness, of course, is a close relative of love. We've all heard the phrase "I will forgive, but never forget" (discussed in my MLK blog). Well, Sampson does exactly that:

“Let me approach at least, to touch they hand,” says Dalia, to which Sampson answers “Not for thy life…my sudden rage to tear thee joint by joint. At distance I forgive thee, go with that.”

Clearly this is not what Martin Luther King had in mind when he described forgiveness—this is the opposite! This also agrees with what Spinoza said about hating someone that you once loved; that it will make you hate them more, treat them worse than if, say, a stranger betrayed you.

Adam learns some things after the Fall, and after an angel talks to him. Adam says that he should love and fear God, be humble, merciful, meek, etc, and keep working for the good. To which the angel replies:

“thou hast attained the sum
Of wisdom; hope no higher, though all the Stars
Thou knewest by name, and all the ethereal Powers,
…And all the riches of this World enjoydst,
And all the rule, one Empire; onely add
Deeds to thy knowledge answerable, add Faith,
Add Vertue, Patience, Temperance, add Love,
By name to come call’d Charitie, the soul
Of all the rest: then wilt thou not be loath
To leave this Paradse, but shall possess
A Paradise within thee, happier far.”

In other words, add deeds to your wisdom, and especially love. This is a variation on Paul's "the greatest of these is love"; and when Augustine said that the end of all wisdom, scripture reading, etc. is nothing more than learning how to love, how to embrace charity. Finally, Milton interprets the Holy Spirit as the bringer of the "Law of Faith / Working through Love," which "Upon their hearts shall write..."

Related Posts
Love Part 1: Platonic Love
Love Part 2: Aristotle
Love Part 3: Epictetus and stoic love 
Love Part 4: Marcus Aurelius
Love Part 5: Plotinus 
Love Part 6: the Buddha
Love Part 7: Christian Love
Love Part 8: Augustine
Love Part 9: Martin Luther King, Jr
Love Part 10: Aquinas 
Love Part 11: Dante
Love Part 12: a Real Love Letter
Love Part 13: Chaucer 
Love Part 14: Hobbes
Love Part 15: Machiavelli 
Love Part 16: Montaigne
Love Part 17: Bacon
Love Part 18: Spinoza
Love Part 19: Your Body


Paradise Lost

Up North: a path to freedom

Some men took their families; some left them behind hoping to send for them later. They left for uncertain futures afraid of what they might find. They left the cotton fields, tobacco, corn and beans behind. They left because they heard that there were jobs, nice homes, food for the family and no Klan.

The Great Migration: Journey to the North is a book of poems and short stories that tell about strength, hope and determination that causes people to survive. Eloise Greenfield showed that you can say very little to still say a lot.


The Great Migration: Journey to the North

Love Part 13: Chaucer

Nobody can escape love, says Chaucer in Troilus and Criseyde; nature forces it onto people as she sees fit. The universe calls us to love: "God loves, and grants that love shall be eternal / All creatures in the world through love exists." Love "saves mankind from wickedness and shame" and "converted thee from all wickedness." And if we don't love, Nature tries to change our mind, it will stike back, come to you, well up:

And loveless hearts, let them by Love be bent
To learn to love, and thus in pity grow,
But faithful hearts may Love keep ever so!

But much of Chaucer's poem, about a knight falling in love with the beautful Criseyde, is not about how great and beautiful love is, but how horrible and stressful it is. Like Cupid, God shoots an arrow of love-at-first-sight disease at the independent knight, "though he thought that nothing had the might / To curb the heart of such a one as he / Yet with a look, no longer was he free, / And he who stood but now in pride above / All men, at once was subject most to Love.” But, Chaucer replies, “scorn not Love…For still the common fate on you must fall / That love, at nature’s very heart indwelling, / Shall bind all things by nature’s might compelling / …men of greatest worth have deepest loved / …For wisest men have most with love been pleased.”

For for the woman especially, love is bondage. At one point she has a "cloudy thought," “Alas, since I am free, / Should I now love and risk my happy state / And maybe put in bonds my liberty?...who loveth not, no cause hath to complain.” She does not fall in love with him on appearances: "No, moral virtue, firmly set and true, / That was the reason why I first loved you." And another knight bases his choice (a "burden") on her "goodness." So we have a mix of the Plato-Aristotle love for virtue's sake theme, and the medieval love-at-first-sight as well.

The Clerk's Tale is a ghastly story about a rich knight marrying a poor woman, testing her loyalty in a Job-like way by taking away her new born children, only to find out at the very end that the story is not about sexist attitude towards women. It's not about that, says the author directly: “This story’s told here, not that all wives should / Follow Griselda in humility, / For this would be unbearable / But just that everyone, in his degree, / Should be as constant in adversity." And then he gives women a battle cry: “Strong-minded women, stand at your defense, / …suffer no man to do to you offense." And to the controlling men:

For one thing, sirs, I safely dare to say,
That friends each one the other must obey
If they’d be friends and long keep company.
Love will not be constrained by mastery;
When mastery comes, the god of love anon
…Love is a thing as any spirit free;
Women by nature love their liberty
And not to be constrained like any thrall,
And so do men, if say the truth I shall.

Free Bird!

Yes, just like the song, women who are treated badly will leave. They will choose "worms" over a "golden cage":

Take any bird and put it in a cage
And do your best affection to engage
…although its cage of gold be never so gay,
Yet would this bird, by twenty thousand-fold,
Rather, within a forest dark and cold,
Go to eat worms and all such wretchedness.
…above all things his freedom he desires.

Related Posts
Love Part 1: Platonic Love
Love Part 2: Aristotle
Love Part 3: Epictetus and stoic love 
Love Part 4: Marcus Aurelius
Love Part 5: Plotinus 
Love Part 6: the Buddha
Love Part 7: Christian Love
Love Part 8: Augustine
Love Part 9: Martin Luther King, Jr
Love Part 10: Aquinas 
Love Part 11: Dante
Love Part 12: a Real Love Letter


Geoffrey Chaucer

Love Part 11: Dante says Love is a Circle

Like Johnny Cash, Dante thinks love is a ring, a circle, a sphere. He depicts love literally as a circle turning the cosmos, powering the world; it's at the center; love makes the world go 'round:

“The nature of the universe which holds the centre quiet, and moves all the rest around it, begins here as from its starting-point. And this heaven has no otherwhere than the Divine Mind, wherein is kindled the love that revolves it, and the virtue which it rains down. Light and love enclose it with one circle, even as it does the others, and of that cincture He who girds it is the sole Intelligence.” And “On that Point Heaven and all nature are dependent. Look on that circle…its motion is so swift because of the burning love whereby it is spurred.”

And, talking about love and the Virgin Mary:

“And when the brightness and the magnitude of the living star, which up there conquers as it conqured here below, were depicted in both my eyes, from within the mid heavens a torch, formed in a circle in fashion of a crown, descended and engirt her [Virgin Mary], and revolved around her.Whatever melody sounds sweetest here below…would seem a cloud.” “I am Angelic Love, and I circle round the lofty joy which breathes from out the womb which was the hostelry of our Desire…Thus the circling melody sealed itself.”

And at end of his creeping and crawling through hell and heaven, Dante concludes:

“O abundant Grace, whereby I presumed to fix my look through Eternal Light…I saw that in its depth is enclosed, bound up with love in one volume, that which is dispersed in leaves through the universe…that of which I speak is one simple Light” and “the lofty Light appeared to me three circles of three colors” and “my desire and my will were revolved, like a wheel which is moved evenly, by the Love which moves the sun and the other stars.”

The Divine Comedy has been called the “summa in verse,” i.e. Aquinas in epic poetry, for good reason. The actual ideas are not original, but the portrayal--the story, the images, the symbolism--is new. Literature is great for this. Aquinas’s doctrine is oozing at the cracks; but it is filled with Aristotle, and the bible, and Saints, Achilles, and various history political figures—all which makes me really appreciate anew how the history of Western thought is connected even more than I thought. This really is a "great conversation." The Divine Comedy has also been called an encyclopedia, which back then meant “circle of knowledge.” Like an encyclopedia, the narrative was meant to be educational on the topics of science (Aristotle), metaphysics and theology, politics (he was writing it as a political exile, which reminds me of Machiavelli), and ethics. Also, like a circle, the narrative begins at one point, goes through hell-purgatory-heaven, and ends at the same point with a new perspective.

Loving well and loving the right things is an art that requires wisdom; this has come up many times. Love is like wax, says God to Dante in purgatory--"the wax be good," "but not every seal is good although the wax is good." The wax is love, which is naturally perfect. The seal is how we use that love, what we attach it to. But Dante responds that, if love does not come from us, how can we be free? “For if love be offered to us from without, and if the soul go not with other foot, it is not her own [the soul’s] merit if she go strait or crooked.” Are we pulled around by love desires, slaves of passion, as Hume would say? God responds no, there is “free will,” an “innate liberty;” the “virtue that counsels,” which “gathers in and windows good and evil loves”—“in you exists the power to restrain it.”

Remember that for Plato, Aristotle and Epictetus, love was a matter of wisdom and knowledge first and foremost—you have to figure out what to love before you can love. Dante says “for the good, inasmuch as it is good, so soon as it is understood, kindles love.” First comes understanding, then comes love. This is very different from simply having a disposition to love everything, whether good or not. This is a picky and choosy love, one that says “this is good” but “that’s not good.” However, we could wonder, how many times are we wrong about what is good? How many times are we wrong about what we should not love?  And what if our “philosophical arguments” and our “authority” figures (Dantes’ sources) are wrong? How does our love suffer? And how should we correct it now, before it's too late?

Related Posts
Love Part 1: Platonic Love
Love Part 2: Aristotle
Love Part 3: Epictetus and stoic love 
Love Part 4: Marcus Aurelius
Love Part 5: Plotinus 
Love Part 6: the Buddha
Love Part 7: Christian Love
Love Part 8: Augustine
Love Part 9: Martin Luther King, Jr
Love Part 10: Aquinas 


The Divine Comedy

Love Part 1: Platonic Love

I'm embarking on a whole new reading journey. Before I get married this Fall, I wanted to read and think about what some of the greatest thinkers have written about love. Where to start? (well, the library of course). There is a set of books called Great Books of the Western World, a collection of the knowledge and wisdom in fiction, philosophy, science, history, poetry, religion, and more. And it comes with an index (called the "synopticon") that allows you to read through these great thinkers by subject. I'm using this reading list as my foundation, but will probably supplement it with other writers (Eastern thinkers, for example!). This blog will be the chalkboard of my reading experience. I hope you comment, add your wisdom and experience, suggest other books, and join me!

We begin with Plato, the father of philosophy. On my first reading, I must admit I was not impressed with what Plato had to say. It seemed like an eccentric philosopher talking about something he had no clue about, over-intellectualizing it, making jokes about it, and talking a lot about the Greek practice of old men "loving" young boys. But I dug deeper. Someone once said that all of western philosophy is merely a footnote to what Plato already said. I don't know about that, but this is what he says [in Plato's dialogues, Socrates is his mouthpiece] about love:

Love is “young and tender” and “of all the gods he is the best friend of men, the helper and the healer of the ills which are the great impediment to the happiness of the race." “He walks not upon the hard but upon the soft…in the hearts and souls of both gods and men…in them he walks and dwells and makes his home…and also he is of flexile form; for if he were hard and without flexure he could not enfold all things, or wind his way into and out of every soul of man undiscovered.”

Socrates sees love as a sort of mediator between God and man:

“he is the mediator who spans the chasm which divides them, and therefore in him all is bound together…For God mingles not with man; but through Love all the intercourse and converse of god with man…is carried on. The wisdom which understands this is spiritual; all other wisdom…is mean and vulgar.”

This has parallels with Christianity, and there is no wonder that future Christian thinkers will take a lot from Plato.

The goal of Platonic love is to increase virtue and wisdom, “communicating wisdom and virtue...seeking to acquire them with a view to education and wisdom.” “Thus noble in every case is the acceptance of another for the sake of virtue. This is that love which is the love of the heavenly goddess, and is heavenly, and of great price to individuals and cities, making the lover and the beloved alike eager in the work of their own improvement."

In contrast, loving for the sake of temporary things like physical beauty, is unwise:

“Evil is the vulgar lover who loves the body rather than the soul, insasmuch as he is not even stable, because he loves a thing which is in itself unstable, and therefore when the bloom of youth which he was desiring is over, he takes wing and flies away.”

On a more practical note, Plato talks about what makes two people compatible for marriage. In Lysis, the conclusion is that totally different people cannot be friends or lovers, but also that the same nature will gain nothing from the other; thus, lovers should be similar but different.

Related posts



The Symposium

“Reading, Rhyming, and ‘Rithmetic”

Reading, Rhyming, and ‘Rithmetic,” poems by Dave Crawley, c.2010, is a fun, entertaining book of school-themed poetry for elementary age children and on up through any age. The poems focus on every day events in a typical school day as perceived by a somewhat mischievous student. The illustrations are comical and bright.

Here are the first several lines from two favorites:

“Sub Fun: A substitute teacher! This will be fun! She won’t even ask if our homework is done! We can goof off now and play silly games! Best part of all, she won’t know our names!” (p. 26)

“Saw My Teacher on a Saturday! I can’t believe it’s true! I saw her buying groceries, like normal people do!” (p. 22)

There are many fantastic poetry books for children at KPL in the J811 section of the library. Do yourself a little favor and read a children’s poetry book. You’re in for a smile all the while!


Reading, Rhyming, and ‘Rithmetic

More Good Books

I like book lists. I like to see what others have particularly enjoyed and recommend. I check off the ones I have read, add some to my list-of-books-to-read-sometime.

One of my favorite lists has just been released: Notable Books 2011. This list is compiled by librarians who work with adult literature, are familiar with the opinion of book reviewers, and probably read tens and tens of books a year themselves. They select fiction, nonfiction, and poetry titles.

Once again, I have several titles to add to my list. I need more reading time!


Notable Books

Rosh Hashanah

In recognition of this week marking the Jewish holiday Rosh Hashanah, allow me to point to several Jewish writers who have inspired and educated me with their engaging works of fiction, poetry and scholarly nonfiction.





Ill fares the land

Just Kids

“Life is an adventure of our own design, intersected by faith, and a series of lucky and unlucky accidents” (Patti Smith).

Most of us probably recognize Patti Smith as the rock icon who helped pioneer the CBGB’s era New York underground scene of the 1970s that brought us bands like Talking Heads, Television and Sonic Youth. Her 1975 album, Horses, was named by Rolling Stone as one of the top 50 rock albums of all time.

Still others might recognize her as an activist, artist and poet, who was highly influenced by the works of William Blake, Arthur Rimbaud and Jim Morrison. The Velvet Underground influence might seem obvious – John Cale produced her first record – but she says that wasn’t a conscious effort. 

Regardless, her use of words, be they her own or interpretations of others’, is a craft that few others have equaled. Her take on Teen Spirit is quite amazing... if not articulate.

After decades of publishing her poetry in influential works like Babel and Auguries of Innocence, Patti’s latest book, Just Kids: from Brooklyn to the Chelsea Hotel: a life of art and friendship, is her first foray into prose.

Using stark, simple imagery, much as she does in her music, Smith tells of her relationship with Robert Maplethorp, her lifelong friend, lover, and the genius behind the lens in many of her early photographs. (It’s Maplethorp’s image of Patti that adorns the cover of her first album, Horses.) Described as “a beautiful love letter to her friend,” Just Kids tells of their days exploring (or creating) the New York underground scene of the late 60s until Maplethorp’s untimely death in 1989. A worthy and interesting exploration.


Just Kids

Sweethearts of Rhythm

Take-Off: American All-Girl Bands During WWII  is a book with a CD that tells a story seldom heard. Take-Off is a great introduction to swing music and features recordings of some of the all-women swing bands that came into their own during the war. More than half of the tracks on the CD included with the book Take-Off were performed by The International Sweethearts of Rhythm, a sixteen piece band that was integrated at a time when, in many locales in the Jim Crow Deep South, it was actually illegal for black and white musicians to play together. The Sweethearts toured there, but not much. For the most part, they played sold out shows in New York, Chicago, Washington, and other cities in the North. In 1945 they traveled to Europe with the USO. 

Check out the book Sweethearts of Rhythm: The Story of the Greatest All-Girl Swing Band in the World, illustrated by 2010 Caldecott Medal winner Jerry Pinkney. Marilyn Nelson’s poems speak in the voices of some of the instruments in the band: Tiny Davis’s trumpet, Ina Bell Byrd’s trombone, Roz Cron’s tenor saxophone, or bandleader Anna Mae Winburn’s baton reminiscing from the shelves of a New Orleans pawnshop about struggles and glory gone by. The Sweethearts, and the other swing bands featured in Take-Off, played music based in the blues and filled with driving energy and joy. Why not place a hold on the books right now?


Sweethearths of Rhythm