LOVE: A Philadelphia Affair by Beth Kephart

Source: Purchased
Hardcover, 176 pgs
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LOVE: A Philadelphia Affair by Beth Kephart (this has a gorgeous cover) is a collection of essays, many of which were published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, that read not like essays but mini-memoirs. It has been a pleasure to read about Philadelphia — a city I was fortunate to visit briefly and not spend enough time in — through the eyes of someone who loves it dearly. All of its nooks and crannies, its alleys, its rivers, its art, its history — it is all laid bare with Kephart’s fondest memories and recollections. The city comes alive in her hands — it breathes.

The graffiti, the artisans, the food markets, and the University of Pennsylvania are moving through these pages like the Schuylkill River, leaving its gleaming beauty behind in its wake.  She says in the preface, “Love: A Philadelphia Affair is about the intersection of memory and place.  It’s about how I’ve seen and what I’ve hoped for, what ‘home’ has come to mean to me.  It’s about train rides, rough stones, brave birds, rule breakers, resurrectionists, unguided and mostly solo meanderings.  It is experiential, not encyclopedic.  Reflective, not comprehensive.” (pg. x)  In this way, Kephart has enabled readers to ruminate on their own memories, which may or may not be of Philadelphia and only tangentially related to her own.  I’ve remembered train journeys to NYC, ice cream I loved as a kid made in a small Massachusetts town, and a journey to Valley Forge that was at once solemn and beautiful.

“There’s something about standing on the platform watching the curve for the Silverliner.  Something about feeling the rumble in the sole’s of one’s feet.  Something about the rituals of travel.  Leaving and returning — that’s where I’ve lived.  I’m sympathetic to the crossties of the tracks.” (pg. 7-8; “Time In, Time Out”)

Kephart establishes the tone for these essays in these lines, telling her readers that she will straddle the past and present, the before and the after, and the moment and the remembering of the moment.  Many of us do this as our minds wander between where we are and where we have been, noting the connections that are only apparent to us until we voice them aloud.  And in “Psychylustro,” we, like the train, become museums — a collection of our own artifacts, memories, and temporal importance.

One minor thing readers may notice, there are only a few photos at the start of each essay, and more photos would have been a lovely addition.  However, LOVE: A Philadelphia Affair by Beth Kephart is a love story involving a city, but it’s also a testament to the love we hold and can freely give through art and action — so long as we can check our ego and greed at the door.  We all want recognition and love, but we need to also realize that these do not come without our own generosity.  It is not just the generosity that we show toward others, but also to ourselves and the world around us.

About the author:

Following the publication of five memoirs and FLOW, the autobiography of Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River, I’ve had the great pleasure of turning my attention to young adult fiction. UNDERCOVER and HOUSE OF DANCE were both named a best of the year by Kirkus and Bank Street. NOTHING BUT GHOSTS, A HEART IS NOT A SIZE, and DANGEROUS NEIGHBORS were critically acclaimed. In October YOU ARE MY ONLY will be released by Egmont USA. Next summer, Philomel will release SMALL DAMAGES. I am at work on a prequel to DANGEROUS NEIGHBORS, a novel for adults, and a memoir about teaching.

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 169 pgs
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The power of Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine makes me wonder what the winner of the National Book Award could have written to outshine Rankine’s words in 2014.  In her collection of essays, poems, and vignettes, Rankine points: “‘The purpose of art,’ James Baldwin wrote, ‘is to lay bare the questions hidden by the answers.'” (page 115)  She took this to heart when writing this collection because she raises up those questions about race in America and brandishes them like a flag.  That is not to say that racism is something that is wholly owned by just white people or white police, but that it is perpetuated by the actions, behaviors, and assumptions both races make about one another.  What does it mean to be American? Does it mean as citizens we brush aside these issues and move forward? Does it mean that we must embrace all of this darkness into ourselves and find solutions that may not work for everyone? Or does it mean that we must take a more internal approach and remedy that which we do to perpetuate those wrongs around us?

from page 135:

because white men can’t
police their imagination
black men are dying

What is engaging about Rankine’s work is that she blurs the lines between the you, the I, the she, the he, to make it less clear cut who is being discriminated against and who is suffering. In this way she takes the time to juxtapose the traditional black victim of white racism formula with a less black-and-white distinction, and it’s done with purpose.

“In any case, it is difficult not to think that if Serena lost context by abandoning all rules of civility, it could be because her body, trapped in a racial imaginary, trapped in disbelief — code for being black in America — is being governed not by the tennis match she is participating in but by a collapsed relationship that had promised to play by the rules.  Perhaps this is how racism feels no matter the context–” (page 30)

Lest you think this book is about racism only through the lens of the victim, it is not.  There a great deal to discuss about racism, its roots, its ignorance, and its pervasiveness in American society.  While many, if not all, the references are contemporary, they could have been pulled from many times throughout history.  Book clubs could discuss this collection of essays and poems for hours.  I cannot explain to you how deeply affected by the book I have been.  I will likely read and re-read this book many times.  I may even put it forth to my book club as a suggestion.

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine is essential reading for every American — young or old, black or white, Hispanic or Asian; it is the beginning of a dialogue that is desperately needed in this country where the presumption of ignorance or incivility is based upon a skin color rather than an individual’s actions and behaviors.  While discrimination against “other” continues, it is not merely one-sided, and until we are able to break down those walls to the truth of our humanity, discrimination and racism will always exist.

***Best of 2015 — not a contender, firmly on the list***

About the Author:

Claudia Rankine was born in Jamaica in 1963. She earned her B.A. in English from Williams College and her M.F.A. in poetry from Columbia University. She is the author of four collections of poetry, including Don’t Let Me Be Lonely (Graywolf, 2004); PLOT (2001); The End of the Alphabet (1998); and Nothing in Nature is Private (1995), which received the Cleveland State Poetry Prize.

Rankine has edited numerous anthologies including American Women Poets in the Twenty-First Century: Where Lyric Meets Language (Wesleyan, 2002) and American Poets in the Twenty-First Century: The New Poetics (2007). Her plays include Provenance of Beauty: A South Bronx Travelogue, commissioned by the Foundry Theatre and Existing Conditions, co-authored with Casey Llewellyn. She has also produced a number of videos in collaboration with John Lucas, including “Situation One.” A recipient of fellowships from the Academy of American Poetry, the National Endowments for the Arts, and the Lannan Foundation, she is currently the Henry G. Lee Professor of English at Pomona College.  (Photo credit: John Lucas)





Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls by David Sedaris

Source:  Little, Brown & Company
Hardcover, 275 pages
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Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls by David Sedaris is a collection of essays and some short blurbs that he suggests could be used by students in their competitions for “forensics.”  Many people talk about Sedaris’ humor and outrageous tales, and while many will look for his signature humor here, they may find that it is a bit subdued and less abrasive than usual.  Many of these essays seem more reflective than probing (think poking with a needle), but they also resemble the tall tales that young children tell their parents when explaining what they did that day or why they got in trouble, etc.

“Their house had real hardcover books in it, and you often saw them lying open on the sofa, the words still warm from being read.” (page 60 ARC)

The first two essays in the collection showcase backhanded sarcasm aimed at American and especially modern ideas about parenting and socialized healthcare, especially the dark fear that socialized healthcare means dirty cots and “waiting for the invention of aspirin” and the coddling of kids who are clearly engaged in bad behaviors simply because a stranger points out the child’s misbehavior.  The end of the collection, “Dog Days,” is a bit more crass in its humor, written in a rhyming poem about various dogs and the parts of themselves that are licked, snipped, and dipped.  These little stanzas were by turns slightly funny to just mediocre as they are things that any person with “toilet” humor would come up with.  In this essay collection, they stood out from the rest, but in a grotesque way.

The essays that reach back into his early family life are the most interesting, and the essay “Author, Author” is ironically humorless in its telling, but it drives the point home not only about author tours — the good and the bad — but also the changing landscape of book stores and readers.  Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls by David Sedaris is an interesting essay collection, but fans may find it a bit more subdued than his other work.

About the Author:

David Sedaris is a playwright and a regular commentator for National Public Radio. He is also the author of the bestselling Barrel Fever, Naked, Holidays on Ice, Dress Your Family in Corduroy, Denim, When You Are Engulfed in Flames and Me Talk Pretty One Day. He travels extensively though Europe and the United States on lecture tours and lives in France.  Visit his Website.
This is my 41st book for the 2013 New Authors Challenge.

The Best of PUNK Magazine by John Holmstrom and Bridget Hurd

The Best of PUNK Magazine by John Holmstrom and Bridget Hurd, with a foreward from Deborah Harry (yes, the singer from Blondie) and Chris Stein (co-founder of Blondie), is a compilation of the best articles and artwork from the magazine, and it opens with a fun depiction of New York City — “The PUNK Map of N.Y.C.: For jerks who just don’t know their way around.”  The drawings of the rivers and the streets and the realistic, and yet, out there cartoons are likely to generate smirks, if not genuine smiles.

As someone born in the late 1970s, but in love with punk music and Blondie, this collection is something that provides not only more background about the emergence of punk, but also the  whimsical fun and sort of not-a-care-in-the-world feel of the genre.  PUNK magazine had a lot to live up to as the voice of 1970s New York, but it also had a lot to break away from in terms of what was expected of a music magazine.  Clearly, PUNK was a magazine dedicated to snarkiness in all its forms — visual and textual — and it worked well.  It was gritty, it was real, and the glamor was no where in its photos or its comics, but that seems to be why the magazine stood out.  There was a whole lot of youthful exuberance in the beginning of this magazine as nicknames were handed out and spaces were renamed — like the PUNK Dump.

The opening interview with Lou Reed is just the tip of the mosh pit with this magazine.  Reed is so candid, it’s almost like he forgot he was being interviewed by a magazine, and it is unlikely anyone told him the interview would be turned into a comic strip.  The comics are filled with typical masculine and bathroom humor at times, but the drawings are enough to carry the jokes beyond their static line.  A really cool moment in the collection is the results of the Patti Smith Graffiti Contest, where some are so tasteful and others are just outrageous.

By the third issue, the magazine’s editors knew they were a hit when the Ramones snagged a record contract in part because of the magazine’s coverage of their band.  One particular gem in the collection is Holmstrom’s explanation of punk:  “sound — faster and louder; humor — like the novelty songs of the 1950s and 1960s; fashion — no glam, just the classics: shades, blue jeans, t-shirt, sneakers; minimalism — less is more.  No bombast; attitude — similar to the hippie ethos “Do your own thing but let me do mine,” but more like: “F**k you! I don’t care what you do, just leave me alone!”; do it yourself — publish your own ‘zine, make your own record; retro rock/conservatism — mining the tradition of rock ‘n’ roll from the 1950s and early 1960s, while rejecting everything after the hippies took over in 1967.”

The Best of PUNK Magazine by John Holmstrom and Bridget Hurd is a great compilation, but you may not want to leave it on the coffee table with conservative parents or in-laws around.  It’s got some bawdy humor, creative ideas, fantastically candid photos and interviews with punk rock stars of the time, and so much more.  Reminiscent of MAD Magazine and the like, but it really has a garage feel about it — a passion of the listener, the true fans of PUNK.

About the Author:

John Holmstrom is a cartoonist and writer and co-founder (with Legs McNeil) of Punk magazine. He illustrated the covers of the Ramones albums Rocket to Russia and Road to Ruin, and created the characters Bosko and Joe, which were published in Scholastic’s Bananas magazine from 1975-1984, as well as in Stop! Magazine, Comical Funnies, Twist, and High Times. Holmstrom’s work and unmistakable artistic style has become the key visual representation of the Punk era.

This is my 13th book for the 2013 New Authors Challenge.

Made Priceless: A Few Things Money Can’t Buy edited by H.L. Hix

Made Priceless: A Few Things Money Can’t Buy edited by H.L. Hix is a collection of short essays about items writers have in their possession that they neither bought nor would they sell because they hold a value not measured by the marketplace.  The book pays homage to all that is held dear in today’s society from a time long past waiting to be recaptured in memories to places you can revisit, though the light will be slightly off or the wind will blow harder.  Hix has culled together a series of short essays that demonstrate the beauty we find in the most mundane things from flags to typewriters to playing cards found on the ground.

Contributors to the collection range from writers and poets to bricklayers and flight instructors, among many others.  The book also is broken down into more than 30 sections with titles like “emotionally pervaded,” “moral transactions,” and “No Ideas.”  While the book is in itself a collection, Hix has asked readers to keep the dialogue open and fluid in an open invitation to readers and reading groups to contribute their “object lessons” to his blog; find out more about that project from my previous post.

Since I’m a contributor to the project, I cannot call this a review due to the potential conflicts of interest it would present.  However, I can tell you that I’m pleased that this nonprofit project is published through a nonprofit publishing house, Serving House Books, and H.L. Hix has said he will donate 100 percent of any royalties he receives from the sales of the book, since he simply seeks to spread “wisdom and joy.”

Resilience Edited by Eric Nguyen

Resilience edited by Eric Nguyen is a collection of essays, poems, stories, and advice for young gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, and transgender teens and young adults, but there are lessons in these stories for everyone, including those that bully, talk down to, or otherwise belittle people.  The world would be a much better place if we were secure in ourselves and didn’t give others’ hate speech the credence that we do or given them the power over our own lives, but those of us who need support, deserve a system of people and community willing to stand up for others.

The collection has some powerful short stories and inspiring essays, and there are poems that demonstrate the pain, confusion, and bullying that LGBT teens experience daily.  It is both heartbreaking and inspiring.  There are letters to the younger self, plays, monologues, and more.  While some of these cry out the injustices experienced by the writers or their characters, others share the regret of not stepping forward to defend their friends and family from bigots and those narrow minded people who tortured and ostracized others because they were different.

From When the Bully Apologizes by J.J. Sheen(page 79):

“Something about the stillness of sitting there in the dark with Marie’s hand all wrapped up in mine made everything boiling inside me fall out and I started crying in a way that I had never allowed myself to.  I tucked my head into my hands and felt like I might be stuck that way forever.  I felt so embarrassed and exposed and wrong and sitting next to the only person who really knew me, I felt lonelier.”

Emma Eden Ramos, whose poetry collection Three Women: A Poetic Triptych and Selected Poems was nominated for the 2011 Indie Lit Awards, offers a genuine short story, “Where the Children Play,” that will have readers by turns anxious and hopeful.  These are the stories readers will cling to, hoping that the world will begin to emulate the acceptance and the unconditional love in these pages.  Readers may have a tough time reading the collection cover to cover, but its meant to unsettle conventional thoughts and open readers’ eyes to the struggles of LGBT teens as they struggle to find themselves and “come out” to their friends, parents, and loved ones.  Although they may accept themselves, telling someone who has a different perception of you is a conversation wrought with fear and longing.

Resilience edited by Eric Nguyen is a collection for not only the community it represents in its stories, poems, and essays, but also for those of us who need to be reminded that these teens are people struggling with issues that go beyond what clothes to wear and what activities to engage in at school and outside of it.  For those without role models or who live in cloistered families with traditional beliefs, this can be restrictive and even more difficult to overcome.

For those in NYC:

On March 17 at 3-5PM, an Open Mic night will be held for contributors to the collection at WordUP Books.

For more information about the Resilience project, visit the blog.


This is my 13th book for the 2012 New Authors Challenge.



This is the 1st book for my 2012 Fearless Poetry Exploration Reading Challenge.

Words That Burn Within Me by Hilda Stern Cohen

Hilda Stern Cohen’s Words That Burn Within Me is a collection of photographs, essays, stories, snippets of interviews, and poems detailing Cohen’s experiences during WWII and the Holocaust as a German resident.  (Please check out a recent reading from the book at The Writer’s Center).  Cohen’s husband, whom she married in Baltimore, Md., in 1948 following her release, discovered her notebooks after her death and set about his journey to have his wife’s writing translated from German and published.  In some cases, the poems are included both in English and in German.

“Our physiognomies were ageless.  There were wild, unfocused eyes, silent, indrawn lips, and haggardness around the cheek and neck . . . only defined and exaggerated by hunger.” (Page 49)

This harrowing story follows Hilda through her early years in Nieder-Ohmen, Germany, and her transfer to schools in Frankfurt as the Nazis gained power.  From Frankfurt, she is transported with her family and young beau Horst to Lodz, Poland, only to face devastating circumstances, the loss of Horst, and more and be transported to Auschwitz.  In a series of essays and interviews, Hilda talks about happier times in her village and with her sister, the trials of childhood and being bullied, but soon the reality of politics sets in and her family is forced to leave their ancestral home.

Forced Labor (Page 54)

My numbed brow drops on the machine,
I fold my captive, tired hands.

A dangling yellow bulb sheds smoky light,
Dusk falls, the day grows pale.

The harried working hours are almost done,
The evening mist is waiting to embrace us.

What binds us in our common chains
Will only hold us while we work —
Night will find each of us in separate gloom.

Cohen’s writing is sparse but detailed in its observations of those around her in the ghetto and the concentration camps.  Her keen eye examines the impact of starvation on her fellow neighbors and on her family members, and it also sheds light on how well her family and herself cope with their situation.  She eventually teaches herself Yiddish after joining a literary group because she only speaks and writes German, which is not what the majority of the Lodz Ghetto understands.  Readers, however, will note a sense of detachment in her writing, almost as if she is reporting the events as she observed them rather than as she felt them.  On the other hand, they will hear the anger and disappointment in her voice, especially when she speaks of the last words her father utters about her mother upon her death.

“There was a strange role reversal that took place psychologically, as it did also later in the camps.  Adults who had lived a life from which they had gained certain expectations were suddenly confronted with an abyss.  There were no signs, no gateposts, none of the usual milestones that one could follow.  Everything had fallen away.”  (Page 33)

Words That Burn Within Me is well assembled mixture of interviews with Hilda Stern Cohen’s essays, stories and poems.  While the collection does illustrate one Jewish woman’s journey during WWII and the Holocaust, it stands as a testament — a record — of how inexcusably these humans were treated and how their debasement impacted their lives, their relationships, their faith, and their souls.  Through well tuned description and controlled emotions, Cohen takes the time to record everything she saw during the war and the Holocaust to ensure that it becomes a warning to others.  A powerful collection and a must read for anyone learning about this time period and the horrors that should never have happened.

This is my 10th book for the WWII Reading Challenge at War Through the Generations!

I’m not sure if this will qualify for the Poetry Review Challenge, but if it does, this will be book #10.

 FTC Disclosure:  I purchased my copy of Words That Burn Within Me from The Writer’s Center following a reading by Hilda Stern Cohen’s husband and her interviewer Gail Rosen.  Clicking on image and title links will bring you to my Amazon Affiliate page; No purchases necessary.