Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Community Book Review: The Hemingses of Monticello

The Hemingses of Monticello by Annette Gordon-Reed

Thomas Jefferson: impregantor of his enslaved half sister-in-law and clingy extrovert. That is the portrayal that Annette Gordon-Reed concocts from the documentary material and the perspectives of the enslaved people in his life. The scanty lack of the former in the voice of the latter forces her into impressive acts of empathy and many such constructions as "He would have.." "She would not have..." But the work definitely earns its Pulitzer by doing so with such skill and illuminating a subject we kind of dimly know about but are missing a lot of important details. Chiefly the fact that this affair(?) between societal unequals lasted for decades, and followed the death of Martha Jefferson, Sally Hemings' half-sister.

Gordon-Reed manages to avoid either canonizing Hemings and her famiy or robbing them of all agency, leaving us to ponder the fact that her brother James committed suicide soon after freedom, or that either James or Sally could have had their freedom decades earlier during their brief time in Paris (Paris courts never refused a freedom suit.) Gordon-Reed does not argue in either of these or any other cases that this shows the beneficence of slavery or Jefferson, but she doesn't reduce her subjects to diversity month cutouts either. She points out other cases such as an enslaved woman who gets her white lover to buy her and live with her openly, and as a free woman. She makes the amazing observation that Jefferson would have had far less wealth if his father and law had to leave property to his enslaved sons, instead of just his white daughter. Similarly, Jefferson's daughters benefited materially from Jefferson taking Hemings as a "substitute for a wife" instead of marrying a woman who could have made any legal claim on him.

The best defense of Gordon-Reed's method, and the most lasting wisdom comes in her saying that the truth can be known by how it illuminates while lies are bound to obscure. This would seem to have application long beyond turn of the 19th century Virginia.

Reviewed by Jesse Bacon

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Seven Unique Gifts For $10 and Under (at our indie bookstore!)

Think you can't find cool and unique gifts for $10 and under at your local, independent bookstore? Here's seven odds and ends at Big Blue Marble that include everything from meditation to West African fantasy to scout notebooks and more.

1)True Love:A Practice for Awakening the Heart by Thich Nhat Hanh. $6.99.(Random House) A cute lil' guide for cultivating loving kindness written by the master of mindfulness meditation. Perfect for an everyday spiritual check-in!

2)The Original Scout Book(3 Pocket Notebooks). $10.00. (Pinball Publishing) These notebooks are the perfect size to fit in your pocket. I have been carrying one around in my back pocket everyday for the last month to record writing ideas, as well as notes and sketches from various expeditions. I gave one to my sister Anna and she uses hers to keep notes when reading and the book is thin enough to double as a bookmark. The pages are gridded so they are great for writing and sketching. -Moseph

3)The Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems by Van Jones. $10.00, On Sale, Hardcover Non-Fiction. (HarperOne) I am in love with Van Jones. He is seriously my idol for many reasons, including coming up with the thesis of this book- rescuing our environment can rescue our economy, which can uplift many of our neighborhoods depressed by poverty and unemployment. This book is just one of the many hardcover non-fiction books on sale for the low, low price of $10.00. -Maleka

4)The Shadow Speaker by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu. $8.99. (Disney, Jump at the Sun)
"In West Africa, fourteen-year-old Ejii struggles to master her own magical powers." A young adult science fiction/fantasy book that has a young African girl as the main character? Get this for everyone.

5)Dead Until Dark: A Sookie Stackhouse Novel by Charlaine Harris. $7.99. (Penguin) Do you have family or friends in your life who are addicted to the Twilight series? Do they know about True Blood, the original HBO series based on these Sookie Stackhouse novels all about vampire detectives, werewolves, and a whole bunch of other fantastical folks? If you don't have enough money to shell out for the entire collection of Twilight, get these cheaper paperbacks instead, which are just as addictive. And if you've already finished all the Sookie Stackhouse novels, try Charlaine's other series involving Lily Bard or Aurora Teagarden. Woo-hoo!

6)First Puzzles by Galison/Mudpuppy. $10.00. Two words... how adorable. These little boxed puzzles have themes like construction, zoo babies, and Eric Carle books and come with four puzzles with four pieces each. Perfect holiday gift for the babies and toddlers in your life.

7)The Gashlycrumb Tinies, or, After the Outing by Edward Gorey. $9.00. (Harcourt) Looking for a classic gruesome alphabet book? You can't go wrong with this little book by the wonderful Edward Gorey, full of gothic illustration, little boys named Leo who swallow tacks, and little girls named Una who slip down drains.

Monday, November 23, 2009

PS Reads, and Gives You Writing Tips

Sunday night's event was a great close to a fabulous birthday weekend. The place was packed--standing room only. The seven readers represented a range of styles and genres. Perhaps the most exciting part though was the discussion afterward where the PS Reads authors and the audience (about half of whom identified themselves as writers of various genres) got into some meaty talk about writing and publishing. There was a heated debate about writing groups and workshops, which was an interesting continuation from some of the discussion that came up after Joanna Smith Rakoff's reading from the first reading of the weekend. It all started when Marc Schuster came out as a big advocate of writing groups, which he says are a great antidote to the stereotype of the solitary writer, locked away and banging on a typewriter. Then people shared some of their positive and negative experiences with writing groups, some tips on starting your own, and some opinions that they should be avoided altogether. Apparently, trust and honesty are important.

And because no matter what your opinion is on something, it is good to have a sense of humor. We learned that there are some great McSweeney's lists about writing groups. I didn't find the one that was referred to but there are a couple on there so check it out and if you find one that mentions space aliens lemme know.

We had some good open mike times, including a 93.6 year old woman who is now pursuing poetry in a new way. I didn't catch her name, but she said the whole thing, including middle names, so if you know it, lemme know.

Then there was some advice from both panel and audience members about submitting work for publication:
1. Study the people you are submitting to. If it is a literary magazine, read the kind of stuff they publish. You may be getting rejected because you don't fit the magazine, not because of the quality of your writing.
2. Read submission guidelines and follow them. It is like getting dressed for a job interview. You want to make a good impression.
3. Don't be discouraged. On average published work is rejected 23 times before publication.
4. Make multiple submissions, but if you get accepted somewhere tell the other mags ASAP. And maybe tell them about some new piece you wrote they might consider instead.
5. Also check out Duotrope's Digest, a free writer's resource listing over 2,700 current fiction and poetry publications.

by Moseph Speller

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Bookstore Birthday Doggerel

The store is four!
Come have a tour!
Step through our door
to worlds galore:

Come, kids, explore!
With bear of lore
And tiny boar
And glum Eeyore.

Hear lions roar,
And dinosaurs,
And babies shouting,
"More, more, more!"

Meet Santa Claus*
with Charles Santor(e)...
Read Gashleycrumb**
by Edward Gor(ey).

For YA crowd,
There's Edward Bloor,
And Annals of
The Western Shore

Try Shadow Speaker
And Graceling
by Kristin Cashore.

The store is four!
With books du jour!
Step through our door
And find out more --

From omnivore
To locavore,
From soldier's tour
To anti-war.

A book based on
Colbert's Report.
Our Choice by Gore:
Our earth -- restore!

The store is four!
Events galore!
And don't we score
With our decor:

With golden roof
and bamboo floor
and runes of power
upon the door...***

The store is four!
For you, our core,
whom we adore,
We shout, "Amour!"

-- a staff member

*Disclaimer: This is poetic license, where "meet" means "come learn about": the December 6 reading will not necessarily include a visit from Santa.

**Parental discretion advised.

***with serious apologies to J.R.R. Tolkien.

Friday, November 20, 2009

YA Fusion, or Our Differences Unite Us

We continued our Young Adult author series Thursday night with a lovely visit from Delia Sherman and Catherine Gilbert Murdock. It was an excellent event full of wit and warm comments. Catherine read from her realistic YA novel Dairy Queen (first in the D.J. Schwenk trilogy), a dramatic scene near the end. Delia then read from her middle grade fantasy novel The Magic Mirror of the Mermaid Queen (sequel to Changeling), a dramatic scene near the middle. And the very different readings came together beautifully, on the parallel strengths of the characters' voices.

The topic of voice reveals one area these authors have in common: they are agreed on the tremendous value of reading all the dialogue aloud, and even on reading dialogue aloud while taking walks outside, sometimes with vigorous handwaving. (They do differ on precisely how public such demonstrations should be.) Delia spoke about the fun of making literary allusions with her characters' personae, and Catherine gave examples of vocabulary, educational level, and tone as ways to ensure the consistency of voice and to distinguish characters from one another. I was particularly intrigued to hear her policy of rewriting to see what various characters would do if it were their story.

When it came time to talk about the writing process in general, we learned that Catherine is an avid outliner who insists on having the end of her story (sometimes the final sentence) and the emotion she wants to leave with the reader completely worked out in her head before she commits any of her work to paper, while Delia, well-versed in the story structures of many kinds of folklore, starts with an unformed idea and just writes, watching the story unfold before her. She often doesn't know the end until she arrives there herself.

One of the most charming aspects of this author event was watching our two guests react (graciously, of course!) to each other's very different ways of doing things. All in all, a delightful discussion. It entertained us, and, even more, it highlighted the breadth of possibility in writing and in story.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Quote: Theodore Gray

I have been enthralled of late with a big coffee table book called The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe, which I think should be installed in every chemistry class. It's got amazing pictures, and I'm learning all sorts of cool random stuff. I'm learning to distinguish the colors of light from the different noble gases. I've learned that cesium explodes on contact with skin (and most other things). I've learned that oxygen is a beautiful blue liquid at -183° C. Who knew?

And the writing is lighthearted and entertaining.

    "If carbon (6) is the foundation of life, then oxygen is the fuel. Oxygen's ability to react with just about any organic compound is what drives the processes of life. Combustion with oxygen also drives your car, your furnace, and if you work for NASA, your rockets. (Actually, the term "fuel" usually refers to the thing that is burned by an "oxidizer," so I'm speaking metaphorically when I say oxygen is the fuel of life. Technically speaking, oxygen is the oxidizer of life.)"

More on cesium and its fellow alkali metals:

    "The other elements of the first column, not counting hydrogen, are called the alkali metals, and they are all fun to throw into a lake. Alkali metals react with water to release hydrogen gas, which is highly flammable. When you throw a large enough lump of sodium into a lake, the result is a huge explosion a few seconds later. Depending on whether you took the right precautions, this is either a thrilling and beautiful experience or the end of your life as you have known it when molten sodium sprays into your eyes, permanently blinding you.
    "Chemistry is a bit like that: powerful enough to do great things in the world, but also dangerous enough to do terrible things just as easily. If you don't respect it, chemistry bites."

At the end of the introduction, Gray sums up the universe:

    "This is all there is. From here to Timbuktu, and including Timbuktu, everything everywhere is made of one or more of these elements. The infinite variety of combinations and recombinations that we call chemistry starts and ends with this short and memorable list, the building blocks of the physical world.
    "Almost everything you see in this book is sitting somewhere in my office, except that one thing the FBI confiscated and a few historical objects. I had a great time collecting these examples of the vibrant diversity of the elements, and I hope you have as much fun reading about them."

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Community Book Review: Chronic City

Chronic City Love Letter

Jonathan Lethem's Chronic City woke me up in the middle of the night, right out of a dead sleep. I realized something about the stranded-in-orbit astronaut, about the environmental sculptor, about the ghostwriter, about Malcolm Gladwell's quality-of-life police, about the acupuncturist, about the war-free edition of the New York Times. (Who would choose the other edition?) I lay there in the dark, as paranoid/inspired as Perkus Tooth, the ex-broadsider around whom the story revolves.

And now I am in love with Chronic City. (It almost spells synchronicity!) It's the kind of love where I cannot stop mentioning it even/especially to people who haven't read it. It's the kind of love that shifts your perceptions forever. Try reading this book and then driving into New York City past Liberty Park; it's like liberating a collective repressed memory, a catharsis, an admission.

It's fitting to be in love with Chronic City, because it is a love letter to writing and the beautiful/terrible role that writers play in the necessary lies and half-truths that keep any culture, but especially this one, intact.

-Reviewed by Jane Cassady

Jane Cassady is the booking maven for the Philadelphia Poetry Slam. She has appeared in The November 3rd Club, The Comstock Review, Valley of the Contemporary Poets, and others. She works at Emlen Elementary Afterschool Program in Northwest Philadelphia, spending lots of time with craft supplies and optimistic little faces.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Major Jackson and Philadelphia

Have you heard of the poet Major Jackson? He is originally from the city of Philadelphia and has won numerous awards and fellowships for his absolutely wonderful poetry. Check out this piece below about Philadelphia and then come in and get your hands on our last copy of Hoops, his second collection of poetry that features Philly throughout the entire book.

Letter to Brooks: Spring Garden

by Major Jackson
When you have forgotten (to bring into
Play that fragrant morsel of rhetoric,
Crisp as autumnal air), when you
Have forgotten, say, sunlit corners, brick
Full of skyline, rowhomes, smokestacks,
Billboards, littered rooftops & wondered
What bread wrappers reflect of our hunger,

When you have forgotten wide-brimmed hats,
Sunday back-seat leather rides & church,
The doorlock like a silver cane, the broad backs
Swaying or the great moan deep churning,
& the shimmer flick of flat sticks, the lurch
Forward, skip, hands up Aileyesque drop,
When you have forgotten the meaningful bop,

Hustlers and their care-what-may, blas�
Ballet and flight, when you have forgotten
Scruffy yards, miniature escapes, the way
Laundry lines strung up sag like shortened
Smiles, when you have forgotten the Fish Man
Barking his catch in inches up the street
“I’ve got porgies. I’ve got trout. Feeesh

Man,” or his scoop and chain scale,
His belief in shad and amberjack; when
You have forgotten Ajax and tin pails,
Blue crystals frothing on marble front
Steps Saturday mornings, or the garden
Of old men playing checkers, the curbs
White-washed like two lines out to the burbs,

Or the hopscotch squares painted new
In the street, the pitter-patter of feet
Landing on rhymes. “How do you
Like the weather, girls? All in together, girls,
January, February, March, April... ”
The jump ropes’ portentous looming,
Their great, aching love blooming.

When you have forgotten packs of grape-
Flavored Now & Laters, the squares
Of sugar flattening on the tongue, the elation
You felt reaching into the corner-store jar,
Grasping a handful of Blow Pops, candy bars
With names you didn’t recognize but came
To learn. All the turf battles. All the war games.

When you have forgotten popsicle stick
Races along the curb and hydrant fights,
Then, retrieve this letter from your stack
I’ve sent by clairvoyant post & read by light,
For it brought me as much longing and delight.
This week’s Father’s Day; I’ve a long ride to Philly.
I’ll give this to Gramps, then head to Black Lily.

Friday, November 06, 2009

A Sugarless World

A lovely reading tonight with author James Magruder, a playwright and award-winning translator who lives in Baltimore. Here's an excerpt from the novel:

I guess I had a "collect 'em all" personality. Every week in 1973 a four-inch president, from Washington in a blue and gold Continental Army uniform to Nixon in a gray suit and tie, went on sale for forty cents at the Jewel food store. On the shelf above the shelf with my miniature liquor bottles, the thirty-six chief executives lined up like beauty contestants on a set of molded Styrofoam risers, with four Greek columns notched into the back row for a more republican effect. I was the class shrimp in grade school, so Madison, the shortest president, was my favorite. Taft was the fattest, buried in a piano crate.

Check out more from the main character Rick Lahrem in Magruder's story which talks about coming out, coming-of-age, and coming-to Jesus.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Community Book Review: The Wasted Vigil

The Wasted Vigil By Nadeem Aslam.

For folks whom Kite Runner was not depressing or complex or poetic enough.

Wasted Vigil literally nails its symbolism to the ceiling in the form of a library. The books were put there by a woman driven mad by years of Afghan wars, but the method is crudely effective, the Taliban don't notice them. Other metaphors are similarly fraught, the house also features paintings devoted to the 6 senses covered over by mud, a giant Buddha's head that weeps tears, and a collection of inhabitants who range from Afghanistans' would-be occupiers (British, Russian, American) to its current inhabitants, themselves an Al-Qaeda former Bagram detainee and a female schoolteacher.
All of this weight threatens to overwhelm the storyline which is basically flashbacks, hanging out, and gathering menace.

The poetic language, historic sweep, and admirable dialectic of blame (between colonizers and colonized) more or less sustain things, and we enjoy our time spent with these shattered people. My only complaint is the women are either dead, disappeared, or going back to Russia which serves to make them a moew little two dimensional then the agonizing, suffering, and also dying men.

Reviewed by Jesse Bacon