Thursday, February 25, 2010

Last Book I Loved: The Four Spirits by Sena Jeter Naslund

The last book I loved was called The Four Spirits by Sena Jeter Naslund. It took place in Birmingham, Alabama during the civil rights movement and has fictional as well as historical characters. I loved how wrapped up you got in the fictional characters while they interacted with the historical ones and history itself. I also loved the ending which was hopeful and scary/uncertain, which really described the time. It was difficult and pulse racing at times but very beautiful.
-Gail Kotel

Gail Kotel is the proprietor of Therapeutic Pilates in Mt. Airy, a holistic physical therapy and pilates practice where she uses the Pilates method for strengthening and alignment. She is also a fine artist. Be sure to check out her March exhibit at MilkBoy in Ardmore and her exhibit at Cambell's in Chestnut Hill in April.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Writing Profile: Mecca Jamilah Sullivan

(photo by Mieke Zuiderweg, Uncalled-For Reading Series at Las Manos Gallery in Chicago, 2010)

1) How would you describe your writing?

I write fiction that is propelled by characters and their language. I’m always interested in people—who they are and how they’ve become that way, what they do and why they do it, how their decisions change their world, what experiences change them and force them to grow. I really enjoy walking for a while in characters’ heads and lives, figuring out how they think and how they speak. In many ways, I think our voices reflect the depths of who we are and what we’ve experienced. So as a lover of character-driven fiction, voice is really important to me, as well.

2) How does writing fit into your everyday life?

When writing isn’t a part of my day, I definitely notice its absence. Which doesn’t mean that I get to write fiction every day, of course. There are lots of days when I don’t write more than a to-do-list and a couple of belabored emails. I think it’s important for writers to acknowledge all of the different kinds of writing we do. I once took a course on print culture from the Renaissance era onward, where the professor drew our attention to all the various kinds of print we take in every day— the text on sugar packets, five billion kinds of street signs, the logos on the bottoms of our boots. I think writing is sort of the same way. We collage and troubleshoot words in so many ways, and spend lots of hidden time putting words together. I have good friends who treat nearly every email they send like a confection, kneading and pinching and frosting it until they feel it’s done.

Right now, I’m doing a lot of critical writing for my Ph.D., which is definitely different from my fiction. In many ways, though, it works the same muscle; almost any kind of writing gives us the chance to conjure up thoughts and images, then lasso them into being with words. Letters, journal entries, even to-do-lists, even business memos, I imagine, can offer moments of play. On days when I don’t get to write fiction, I try to really enjoy the creative aspects of whatever I am writing. But I make a note of it, and my day does feels a little different. I feel best when I’m creating things with words.

3) What authors and/or poets and writers inspire you?

Oh, there are so many. I am a huge, huge fan of Toni Morrison. I recently rediscovered her short story “Recetatif,” and sort of fell tragically and beautifully in awe all over again. I admire her for so many reasons, and talking about her always feels to me like trying to talk about love, to anatomize it. Her narrators are always completely authoritative and yet infinitely supple—they let you know that they have an important story to tell and that they are in control of that story, but they somehow also charm you into listening, settling in, going along for the ride, no matter how challenging and even painful it may be. I have similar feelings about Virginia Woolf, especially in To The Lighthouse, and Ralph Ellison, and William Faulkner. Jamaica Kincaid’s narrative voices always make me itch for a pen. As does Gayl Jones’s imagination, and James Joyce’s, too.

And there are lots of younger contemporary writers whose work inspires me. Junot Diaz, Edwidge Danticat, and Sapphire stand out as models of folks who explore multiple worlds and multiple experiences—hip-hop culture, immigrant culture, issues of sexuality and gender, exile and alienation, all kinds of fusions and fractures—on a contemporary urban stage that my generation can relate to. I grew up in Harlem in the 1980’s and 1990’s, and I think I’ll always be drawn to stories rooted in that kind of time and place. The voices of rappers like Queen Latifah, Sugar Hill Gang, and the Notorious B.I.G. loom about as large for me as a lot of these authors I’ve mentioned. So I admire writers who’ve been able to tap into the urgency and complexity of young, urban voices and bring them to other parts of the world.

4) How does the community of Philadelphia play a part in your writing?

Philly has always felt like a home away from home for me. My mother was born and raised in North Philly, and that side of my family is still here. On a basic level, Philly and writing have always gone together for me. Throughout elementary school, I would come and spend a week or two of my summer vacation with my grandmother, and I’d always do a lot of writing. Every morning she’d clip the Cryptogram word puzzle from the Inquirer for me, and I’d do the puzzle and then write little stories based on whatever the quote turned out to be.

Now, Philly’s writing community is a sort of home-base for me. Most of the stories that I’ve published were written here, on the slanted stoops of buildings in the Art Museum area, or on the bus en route to West Philly, or in coffee shops downtown. Art in general is really alive in a special way in Philly. Community art is such an important part of the culture here, with the Mural Arts program, for example, which makes a walk through this city like a trip through Wonderland for anyone who loves art. And there are so many talented writers here—communities like Big Blue Marble, the Chapter and Verse series, the Light of Unity series, Moles not Molar, Running Wild Writers, and the Kelly Writers House all bring rich, interesting new fiction and poetry within close reach. Then, too, the legacy of writers like Sonia Sanchez, John Edgar Wideman, and W.E.B. Dubois is definitely an inspiration in itself.

5) What is the last book you have read that you enjoyed? Tell our Big Blue Marble community a little about it.

This is a tough one. I suppose that would be Jamaica Kincaid’s Mr. Potter. It’s a really stunning book about the life of a seemingly unremarkable Antiguan man, told from the point of view of his daughter. As in all of Kincaid’s work, the narrator taps into this unrelenting first-person voice that hooks you immediately, and makes you crave her when she’s gone. The book follows the narrator as she imagines and reconstruct her father’s life, thinking through how forces like colonialism, poverty, racism and classism, infidelity and love have shaped him, and, in turn, shape her. It’s one of Kincaid’s more recent novels, and I think it reflects everything that I admire about her work, and everything I try to do in my own. It makes you fall in love with the characters even through their missteps and cruelty, makes you root yourself in her fictional world, even with its real-world treacheries and flaws.

Mecca Jamilah Sullivan’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in publications from the US, the UK, and South Africa, including Callaloo, Best New Writing, Bloom, Crab Orchard Review, Lumina, Baobab, X-24:Unclassified, Philadelphia Stories, and others. A graduate of the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, the Key West Literary Seminars, the Pan African Literary Forum in Ghana, and other workshops, Mecca’s awards and honors include the Charles Johnson Fiction Award from Crab Orchard Review, the James Baldwin Memorial Playwriting Award, Shortlist Finalist placement for the 2009 Eric Hoffer Prose award from Best New Writing, and second place for the 2010 American Short Fiction Short Story Contest, judged by Rick Moody. She has held residencies and scholarships from the New York State Summer Writers Institute, the Hedgebrook Writers Retreat, and others. Mecca holds a B.A. in Afro-American Studies from Smith College and an M.A. in English and Creative Writing from Temple University. Born and raised in Harlem, New York, she is currently a Ph.D. candidate in English Literature at the University of Pennsylvania, and is completing her first novel.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Review: Noah's Compass, by Ann Tyler

Noah's Compass, by Anne Tyler (Knopf, Hardcover, 9780307272409, 288pp.)
A Review by Janet Elfant

To understand my love of Anne Tyler, one might first want to understand my more than 30 year-old association with my much beloved mother-in-law. My mother-in-law is an artist who burned most of the food she cooked and then threw the burnt pans out off the deck. When involved in a project, she sometimes forgot to pick up her children at school and they would hike the four or five miles home in whatever weather Connecticut had to offer for that season. Yet when the "pet" donkey swallowed her youngest child's arm (he had been offering it a treat) and everyone was running around wondering what to do, my mother-in-law picked up the nearest log and hit the donkey over the head which surprised him so much that he opened his mouth and let Patrick's arm out.

Ann Tyler writes about people like my mother-in-law. Every book she has written has contained characters with various clouds of eccentricity yet each character is treated with kindness and respect in her rendition. Liam Pennywell, the main character in Tyler's most recent novel, Noah's Compass, is a philosopher, downsized to a history teacher, downsized to unemployment. He has survived two "failed marriages" resulting in three daughters with whom, in the beginning of the book, he has minimal contact. In his attempt to downsize his life, he relieves himself of most of his possessions and moves into a modest concrete apartment complex on the other side of town. An intruder enters through his unlocked porch door during the night of Liam's first sleep in the apartment and causes enough physical harm that Liam is taken to a hospital. Upon awakening, Liam has no memory of the burglary which causes him extreme distress. Liam has lost a night of his life. That loss sets the scene for the rest of the novel. What is played out for the next 200 pages are the questions of who we are, who we have been, and who we have left to be. Ann Tyler is always a surprise with her answers.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Random Books I Want To Read

Greetings book lovers!

On a semi-regular basis I will post random selections of books I want to check out that are in stock at Big Blue Marble Bookstore. These could be classics, Indiebound bestsellers, African history, memoirs, pop culture, humor, kid chapter books, or anything that strikes my fancy. I have an infinite love of books and an infinite amount of curiosity. So these are books that I look at while drinking a cup of Rishi Masala Chai (available in our cafe... hee,hee), while I am dusting off the tops of shelves, while I am daydreaming in the middle of the sales floor about authors I want to come visit us, and while I am wiping smudges off our wooden floors. These are books that we receive weekly and books that have been sitting on our shelves for awhile. Join me, if you will, on a virtual tour of book love through our bookstore.

Love, Maleka, events coordinator at Big Blue Marble Bookstore

First Random Pick: The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs, $15.95, in our History section.

Intriguing. I heard this book first mentioned in a reading by local author David Grazian for his book On the Make. It seems to be a classic book about urban planning and the history of cities. Plus the other day I had a personal revelation that I always want to live or at least be very close to a city. And Jane Jacobs was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania! So it reminds me of the TV show The Office and I love that show.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Poetic Profile: Bonnie MacAllister

Another new Big Blue Marble blog series! Poetic Profiles will be asking local poets and writers five questions about writing, life, and books. We're starting the series with the multidisciplinary and very talented Bonnie MacAllister.

1) How would you describe your poetry?

Examining sound and syntax through uncommon combinations, my verse thrives on a chopping constructs and forms often four or five line stanzas: rarely rhymed, strictly metered, intensely syllabic, occasionally crafted sestinas, a deconstructed breath verse.

I publish small editioned chapbooks including SOME WORDS ARE NO LONGER WORDS and PAID IN GOATS and collaborate to produce poetic films. The chapbooks are in permanent collections including the Zine Library at Barnard College, the Utopian Library in Viareggio, Italy, Concentrated Experimental Poetry, and la GalerĂ­a del MEC, Montevideo, Uruguay. My book, IN THE AFTERMATH, currently in production will become part of the new Brooklyn Art Library, formerly Art House Co-op in Atlanta, Georgia.

My work has appeared in venues such as Helix, Parlour, Black Robert Journal, nth Position (UK), Dead Drunk Dublin and Other Imaginal Spaces…(Ireland), Turtle Ink Press (Pushcart Prize Nomination 2007), the Feminist Journal, and Paper Tiger Media (Brisbane).

2) How does poetry fit into your everyday life?

As an educator, I have taught urban youth populations from 5th -12th grades in language arts, reading, mural arts, performance poetry, breath verse, zine creation and theatre through schools and non-profit organizations such as the Mural Arts Program, and the Philadelphia Shakespeare Festival. I conducted workshops at Shaw Middle School’s Sonia Sanchez Literacy Night and at Temple University for Central High School’s Philadelphia Immigration and Culture Conference. I have only taught in high need schools in urban settings so I understand the necessity of instilling hope and optimism in this youth through the work.

As a teacher of British and World Literature and French Language at the new Arise Academy Charter High School for students who have been in the foster care system, I am also the academic advisor for the Arise SUNRISE, the student art and literary magazine with a staff of seventeen students. These students came to me with piles of poetry and sketchbooks filled with art so our group fills a definite need for them.

3) What poets and/or authors inspire you?

My English and French students read poetry in my classes including some personal favorites such as Edmund Spenser, John Keats, T. S. Eliot, Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, Leopold Sedar Senghor (Senegal), Dr. Tanure Ojaide (Nigeria), and Ken Saro-Wiwa (Nigeria).

My preferred poets have been the same since I was a teen: Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Louise Gluck, Marge Piercy, Elizabeth Bishop, Mary Oliver, and Sylvia Plath. Antonin Artaud and Haruki Murakami have also become obsessions for me over the last two decades.

My favorite local poets are Beth Boettcher, Jane Cassady, Monica Pace, Dr. Niama Williams, Gabrielle Casella, Michelle Wilson, and Lora Bloom. Fortunately, I can call all of these talented ladies dear friends.

4) How does the community of Philadelphia play a part in your poetry?

I have hosted poetry events at the Wilma Theatre, the Highwire Gallery, and October Gallery. As an active member of the Women’s Caucus for Art Philadelphia, I hosted a 2009 women’s poetry reading at the Plastic Club. I performed on the curated Nexus Radio Project for a show of zinester artists. In Philadelphia, I have upcoming performances at the Rotunda for Gabrielle Casella’s Poet-tree In Motion for Women’s Her-story Month on March 3rd at 7 p.m., Radio Eris’ Temple of Eris in West Philadelphia on March 13th, and July 1st for the Lights of Unity Association Festival of the Friends of the Free Library. I love to collaborate with Lora Bloom on the Temple of Eris stage.

My previous background was in poetry slams in the United States and in France, but I no longer perform in those and prefer multimedia collaborations in film, art, and sound installations. I attempt to render moments through a variety of media. Often pieces are multi-genre, fusing painting, photography, slide installations, spoken word, video, and performance. I have shown visual art in Italy, Uruguay, Belgium, France and various university galleries in the United States.

5) What is the last book you have read that you enjoyed? Tell our Big Blue Marble community a little about it.

Lately I’ve been reading a bit of Ethiopian poetry in preparation to teach the work in the spring. Last summer, I was fortunate to be awarded a 2009 Fulbright-Hays award to travel to Ethiopia to study history, culture, and migration. I am still digging through the suitcase of books I brought back. Two favorites are certainly Asafa Tefera Dibaba: Decorous Decorum and Lulit Kebede and Wossen Mulatu: Ribbon of the Heart.

Dibaba is an Oromo national (one of Ethiopia’s 80 different ethnic groups) who writes in English punctuated by the Oromo language. His work examines the idea of nationality and country through both gorgeous and sometimes bawdy, controversial poetry. He now teaches Literature and Folklore in the College of Education, Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia where he is a PhD Candidate in Comparative Literature.

Lulit Kebede and Wossen Mulatu are two young college educated women writers living in the capital, Addis Ababa, whose artistic and poetic collaboration, Ribbon of the Heart tackles important issues such as HIV, street prostitution, women’s roles, and foreign corporate infiltration of a country so fiercely proud of its independent status in Africa as a country never colonized.

Bonnie MacAllister is an artist, author, and educator. She is a 2009 Fulbright-Hays awardee to Ethiopia, a 2007 Pushcart Prize Nominee and five time slam poetry champion in the United States and France. Publication credits include Black Robert Journal, Paper Tiger Media, Dead Drunk Dublin and Other Imaginal Spaces, and nth Position. MacAllister has most recently exhibited at the Utopian Library in Viareggio, Italy and in la GalerĂ­a del MEC, Montevideo, Uruguay.

She is an active member of the Philadelphia Chapter of the Women's Caucus for Art and fundraises for Girls Gotta Run Foundation which sponsors Ethiopian girls' running teams. Bonnie teaches French and British Literature at the new Arise Academy Charter High School for foster children in Center City. She is the webmaster for the Fulbright-Hays Ethiopia outreach website which offers teacher resources on Ethiopia. For a video of Bonnie reading poetry at Big Blue Marble Bookstore go here.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Last Book I Loved: Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell

Here's a new series on Big Blue Marble Bookstore's Blog. Last Book I Loved will profile books that community and neighborhood teachers, neighbors, artists, writers, and all kinds of other folks read recently and loved. Our first profile is by the talented Claire McConnell... and please be sure to check out her creative speech workshops (including the one starting on February 19th!)

The last book I loved was Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell, published in 1960. Karana's tribe leaves her Pacific Island home and she must survive there alone. She learns how to build a house, how to make weapons to fight off the wild dogs, how to catch an octopus, and makes a number of surprising friends in lieu of human companionship. Like the Little House books, it's for children and it's about 'roughing it', the basic skills for living on the earth. You really learn to love the island, all the textures and colors and worlds within it, even while pining for human contact along with Karana. I would recommend this book to children around age 9 and to grown ups too!

Claire McConnell is writing an island novel. She is an assistant pre-school teacher at the Waldorf School of Philadelphia (across the street from the Trolley Car Diner). She also teaches Creative Speech-- the arts of storytelling, poetry reciting, and acting based on the work of Rudolf Steiner-- and will teach an intro workshop on February 19th at the Philadelphia Dance Theater, 10am to 3pm (More info at Creative Speech Philadelphia.)

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Staff Book Review: Little Bee

Little Bee by Chris Cleave

With reluctance, I would say that Little Bee by Chris Cleave is a must read for anyone who wants to face the horrors done to "underdeveloped" communities for the sake of export...export of oil...export of foods not available to us because of our climate...export of goods at extreme profits. Chris Cleave is an expert at character development and the reader gives her heart to the inner life of the five major characters in this novel who depict perfectly the cultural conflict between those who have relatively nothing and are content and those who are forever discontent because they can never have enough. Little Bee stands as the voice in us all as she learns how to be as English as possible during her two years in a detention camp and yet maintains the voice within her from her simple happiness with her mother and sister before the "men" came to her village. I recommend this book be read only when you can reach the last page and go sit with a dear friend at our cafe upstairs and enjoy a cup of warming tea or strong coffee.

Reviewed by Janet Elfant