Monday, November 14, 2016

American, through an immigrant's eyes: Okey Ndibe

Okey Ndibe, who participated in Clark University's Book and Author Dinner in April 2014, has released a memoir, "Never Look an American in the Eye: Flying Turtles, Colonial Ghosts and the Making of a Nigerian American." The title may give you an indication of Dr. Ndibe's wit—one of the traits that helps immigrants adjust to this country successfully.

Author of the novels "Foreign Gods, Inc." and "Arrows of Rain," he is co-editor of "Writers Writing on Conflicts, and Wars in Africa."

His latest work joins previous publications in receiving critical praise.
"Okey Ndibe brings a keen eye to his delightful and insightful new memoir. His vision is clearer than 20-20. A writer who can arrive in America, be falsely accused of bank robbery in just 10 days, and still manage to keep his sense of humor, is a man with a story to tell. He writes it beautifully," said Sally Denton, author of "The Profiteers: Bechtel and the Men Who Built the World."

"Powerful insights into the trials, prospects, and triumphs of being an immigrant in America. In a style that is impressively skillful, Ndibe masterfully conveys the odysseys of his early life in Nigeria as well as his immigrant life in the US," wrote the publication Sahara Reporters.

A former professor at Brown University, Providence, and Trinity College, Hartford, Ndibe lives with his family in West Hartford. He co-founded the journal African Commentary with noted author Chinua Achebe ("Things Fall Apart"). He writes with insight and wit about early struggles in Nigeria and his life as an immigrant. In fact, his essay, "My African Eyes," won him widespread attention for its detailed recollection of his childhood within Biafra's war, from 1967 to 1970.

This memoir, published Oct. 11, tells of Ndibe's move from Nigeria to the United States. He recounts stories of his relationships with Achebe and other writers, compares Nigerian and American etiquette and politics, and takes an insightful look at American stereotypes about Africa (as well as the reverse).

Roy Blount Jr. onboard:

Road trip: The Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford will host humorist-author Roy Blount Jr. at 7:30 p.m., Nov. 17, in the museum's Lincoln Financial Auditorium, West Hartford. Blount will read from his latest, "Save Room for Pie," a collection of poetry, songs, essays and "news" about food. Count on it being funny.
A panelist on NPR's lively "Wait, Wait ... Don't Tell Me," Blount is well known to radio fans. But he's also well known in the literary world and even serves as a consultant to at least one prominent dictionary publisher. He's a wit and a word geek: he's lampooned the Pittsburgh Steelers and written about the Marx  Brothers' war satire. He's even written about our common English language in "Alphabet Juice" and "Alphabetter Juice."
Area book groups:
Local author Jim MacIntosh talks about his new thriller, "Witness the Trees," at the 6:30 p.m., Nov. 15, meeting of Leicester Library Book Club. The book concerns a murder among friends camping in the New Hampshire woods.
Members of the book club at Heywood Library, Gardner, have slated "I Am Malala" for their 4:30 p.m., Nov. 30 meeting.
On Tuesday, Nov. 29, members of the Bannister Book Group in Brookfield will meet at 7 p.m. to discuss Kathleen Grissom's "The Kitchen House," the story of an Irish child working alongside slaves on a tobacco plantation.
In North Brookfield, Haston Library Book Group meets at 7 p.m., Dec. 6, to discuss the November/December selection, "Cuckoo's Calling" by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling).
Also on Nov 29, members of the Thayer Memorial Library Book Group will meet to discuss "After the Falls," a memoir by Catherine Gildener, at 6:30 p.m. in Lancaster.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Marcello, Sherbrooke reading

Richard Marcello, whose latest novel is being released Oct. 25, will read from that book on Oct. 28 at "Upstairs at The General,"—a new venue for authors and readers in Harvard's General Store, 1 Still River. Katherine A. Sherbrooke, author of "Finding Home" and "Fill the Sky," will also read.
This is the third gathering at The General; sessions feature new and experienced authors in a great setting, with food and beverages available. Marcello is the author of "The Color of Home," "The Big Wide Calm" and "The Beauty of the Fall." He teaches a 10-week fiction and memoir writing course through Seven Bridge Writers Collaborative in Lancaster.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Another topic for book groups to explore: Poverty

The "haves" may say, why give them benefits, higher pay, health care? They buy drugs and steal from us. They abuse the system. Liberals throw money at them, with no improvement.
Both sides disagree on the best approach to poverty, but not on its scope. Preserving economic inequality through callous ignorance creates cultural blindness, which in turn allows those who "have" to ignore those in need.

Plenty of people on every economic level, however, seek to end the cycle of poverty and hunger. Futurists and cultural anthropologists write abundantly and knowledgeably about inequality. Their books may give rise to heated discussion in your group, even stimulate some form of action.
Here are a few popular books suited for general readership.

"Nickel and Dimed," Barbara Ehrenreich—This 2001 account of an "experiment"—in which a woman works alongside others earning minimum wage in three U.S. cities—has become a college-level requirement. It shares the strained lives of people Ehrenreich met. The author never loses sight of her task or her luck: she gets to return to her life and write a book after leaving the struggling class. It's a readable account of how people live when they can't make ends meet.

"$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America"— Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer combined research and economic calculation to expose sharply increased levels of poverty. Many Americans live on the equivalent of $2 a day, skipping meals and other basic needs while resorting to various unconventional ways (like donating blood) to obtain what they need.

"White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America"—Nancy Isenberg questions whether life in the U.S. really is as "equal" as people may like to think. In "White Trash," published in June, Isenberg evaluates economic, political, cultural and scientific arguments to reveal how much the idea of class plays into our thinking. (One might comprehend why those with little but class history cling to bellicose braggarts who promise a huge future.)

"Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City"—This much-praised work by Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond portrays real poverty—from eviction to homeless shelter. It's likely to have a deep impact on the way we look at deprivation in this country. Set in Milwaukee—a city now burning with rage—it relates the stories of eight families in poor neighborhoods. To understand, we need to feel, and Desmond's work provides that. It's desperation time. From the New York Times: “Written with the vividness of a novel, (Evicted) offers a dark mirror of middle-class America’s obsession with real estate ... where evictions have become just another part of an often lucrative business model.”
"Born Bright: A Young Girl's Journey from Nothing to Something in America"—C. Nicole Mason's memoir brings readers into the heart of poverty, as a girl born to a 16-year-old single mother learns to navigate between crazy home life and the school where she finds herself. She struggles to find a better future. Mason reveals the reasons poverty is nearly impossible to escape and rejects the notion that the poor don't help themselves enough.

"Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis"—J.D. Vance's book provides a paint-by-numbers look at what's gone wrong with America's middle class to create such dysfunction and confusion. His Appalachian family should never have produced a Yale Law School scholar, but it did. An eye-opening look at the legacy of abuse and addiction, told with love and humor.

"The New Trail of Tears: How Washington is Destroying American Indians"—Naomi Schaefer Riley wrote this newly published account of poverty, suicide and violence on American reservations. Riley talks about the federal policies behind Indian poverty, which have created a third-world reality for them in America.

Ann Connery Frantz writes about books, authors and book groups for the Worcester, Mass., Telegram & Gazette, and is a co-founder of the Seven Bridge Writers Collaborative, offering writing classes, workshops, critique and writing groups, and author presentations.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Exploring the environment in book club selections

from the Telegram & Gazette,
Worcester, MA
Read It and Reap by Ann Connery Frantz

Understanding environmental concerns is necessary to prepare for the issues emerging in political contests. Human rights, social justice, environmental action and animal rights are part of our world; this column considers books on the environment, and common efforts to "be the change."
There are so many books available, in so many directions, that it's difficult to select one for your book group. Technological change makes keeping current a challenge. Many of these books, then, are recent or new releases.
Stuart Smith's memoir, "Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know about the New Environmental Attack on America" (2015) concerns his work as a young, inexperienced lawyer confronting well-funded opposition after the discovery of poisoned water in Laurel, Mississippi.
Pollution, often linked to the weak and defenseless populations, is part of "Toxic Tourism: Rhetorics of Pollution Travel and Environmental Justice," by Phaedra Pezzullo.
In "The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future" Gretchen Bakke deals with our aging energy system, which interferes with solar and wind alternatives. Competing interests and political units need to cooperate toward achieving conversion to a more intelligent, economical system. Bakke's focus is on how Americans are changing the grid, sometimes with gumption and big dreams and sometimes with legislation.
"Engineering Eden: The True Story of a Violent Death, a Trial and the Fight over Controlling Nature," by Jordan Fisher Smith, takes on the difficult balance between America's natural resource management and human use of parks. Sparked by a bear-caused death in Yellowstone Park, a civil suit exposed the government's resource management practices, weighing preservation against human exploration. At issue: How much should parks do to protect either side?
Ken Ilgunas's study of the Keystone Pipeline, "Trespassing Across America," is an informative yet humorous account of his foot journey along the 1,900-mile long Keystone XL pipeline route. He reflects on climate change, the natural world, and the extremes to which we can push ourselves. Readers may enjoy its colorful characters and strange encounters—reminiscent, I think, of William Least Heat Moon's "Blue Highways."
Climate scientist Michael E. Mann and illustrator Thomas Toles, one of my favorite editorial cartoonists, have paired up in a book being released in September. "The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial Is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy" takes a satiric look at the attempts of climate-deniers and corporate interests to bury protest and further pollute the planet. Together, they expose the fallacies being argued. For a lively book that even "I-don't-read-science books" members will like, try this one.
Due in November, David Biello's "The Unnatural World: The Race to Remake Civilization in Earth's Newest Age" argues that civilization is at a critical point, requiring the efforts of science, powerful resources and common folks like us to alter the future. Biello argues we are the Earth's gardeners, but we are not in control of our creation. Survival, he says, depends on these gardeners and evolving solutions.
Vandana Shiva has written many times about environmental crises, energy mis-use, food, and the like. "Earth Democracy: Justice, Sustainability and Peace, "Soil Not Oil," "Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply" and "Staying Alive: Women, Ecology, and Development" are all Shiva's work. Now, in "Who Really Feeds the World?" she writes about how to feed the world without destroying it, revealing agricultural practices that result in a starving world, rather than a well-fed population. This physicist-environmentalist also refutes genetic modification.
Finally, "What We Think About When We Try Not to Think About Global Warming" is by Norwegian Per Espen Stoknes, who appeals to the heart as well as the mind regarding global warming. People can make needed changes simply, he believes, and he argues that persuasively.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Steve Huff takes on Saul Goodman's best advice

He tweets. "Good thing about insomnia is my neighborhood gets weird between midnight and 4 AM. *opens iPhone, types 911 but doesn't send, just in case*"
He sings. Tenor. "I studied to be an opera singer. Did it professionally. But once, a singing gig fell through after I'd learned all the music. I was very excited about it; next thing, the producer called and said the company's not doing any more productions at all. I was depressed by that, so I diverted myself in the blogging."
He parents. "I get up around 4 a.m. and write or research for a couple hours. Then I get the kids up and off to school. Sometimes, I take my wife to work—she's the English chair at Worcester Academy. After school, when the kids come running back in, I have to remind them I'm actually working."
He's funny. On deciding to be one's own lawyer, for instance: "I applaud your moxie. Because to face a court of law with your wits and whatever legal training you picked up from the Google school of law—and that one cousin who's been to jail so much he really knows stuff, man—takes courage."
He's versatile. He edits and blogs about science and "cool tech" for "Maxim" magazine's online site. He has thousands of Twitter followers for a satire on life coaching that he runs with two friends. His credits include TruTV's Crime Library, the New York Observer and the Observer’s tech blog,, CBS News, Village Voice Media, the Daily Beast, and Complex Magazine.
Just now, he's written a book. You've probably never heard of him.
Steve Huff lives in Worcester, on the border between a nice, and a not-so-nice, neighborhood. This makes for very interesting scenery. The uniform-jumping-over-the-hedge kind. He is about as busy as a writer-journalist can get, but he always remembers to think like a guy who's hungry for clients. He hasn't forgotten lean times. Right now, though, life is promising: a major publisher has released his first book, "Don't Go to Jail!: Saul Goodman's Guide to Keeping the Cuffs Off." (see sidebar)
Anyone familiar with the AMC television series "Breaking Bad" or its spin-off, "Better Call Saul," knows about the shady lawyer played by actor Bob Odenkirk. Saul's an Albuquerque attorney who handles those luckless offenders—petty thieves, pot smokers and the like—who end up in small courtrooms with judges who've seen thousands of them before, and will see thousands more. He's tricky, savvy and usually gets the job done for his clients.
Done, that is, if they do two things—as related by Huff. Handling a sticky legal situation is often as much about the point of view you approach it with as it is about the alleged crime itself. Saul's first bit of advice: "Keep your mouth shut." Second comes "call a lawyer." He really means it: "I want to put into your brain a Mormon Tabernacle Choir of Saul Goodman singing "MAKE NO STATEMENTS" to the tune of the 'Hallelujah Chorus.' "
It's hard to imagine Huff could write so expertly about legal matters, but he does. "I'm not a lawyer," he says. His work has been vetted by the program's legal consultants, however, and assisted by his years of legal writing. In earlier years, the knowledge gleaned from his research and writing background earned him interviews on major television news and crime programs—an interest he's now abandoned because of its gruesomeness.
"I had been writing about criminal justice since 2005," Huff said. "In 2004, almost nobody was blogging yet, and those who were wrote about politics. I liked crime stories, criminal justice stories, so I wrote about them. It was just good timing, at the beginning of social media intersection with crime stories. I was an amateur—but within about six months of the first post, I was getting calls from editors at big web sites, wanting to hire me to write articles for them. Writing work took off from there."
He focused on crime until about 2009, then started to look for variety. He loved humor and had friends who were working as comedians, so he fed that need. It was lucky happenstance that he got the job. A friend saw an editor's tweet, looking for someone funny who could also write about crime. The timing was perfect.
Once hired, he was given an almost-laughable deadline: one month to write the book. Not many people would jump at that; Huff did. "There was a lot of intense work," he said. "The all-nighters kind. I might as well have been a law student for a few weeks there. But I didn't have to cover the deeper intricacies of the law because I was supposed to write something that was in context of "Better Call Saul"—a book that one of his potential clients would want to read. Saul handles kind of small-crime stuff in "Breaking Bad" and in "Better Call Saul." Cops finding weed in your car. Getting caught urinating in public. The book is fiction in that way—Saul is writing a kind of conversation with a client."
Don't mistakenly consider this a humor book—alone. It's a serious book written with humor. Big difference. It's about avoiding jail if you can (read up on "attitude"), handling yourself in court, or in jail, snitching—or not, avoiding future temptation once you're out, and modifying your life.
It is funny, all the way through, but it's a solid book of advice as well. "You're your own worst enemy by not knowing your rights and how to handle yourself in an arrest," Saul says, via Huff's pen.
To prepare, he said, "I sat down and binge-watched the first season of "Better Call Saul." I tried to catch a number of episodes of "Breaking Bad"—episodes in which he was featured—to get an idea of the voice of the character. His voice informed some of the humor." Capturing that voice was a shared task. "The book really is kind of co-written. I wrote the manuscript and it was sent off to the writers for the show. Then, a number of them did what they call a punch-up. They don't edit your manuscript; none of my content was changed or corrected. They just made it sound more like the character might talk. Some of the jokes are theirs and some mine (I'm pretty proud of a couple of them.)."
Though he was ghost-writing, and knew his part would be anonymous, the publisher (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press) gave him cover and title page credit for his work. "I woke up the day after I turned the book in and thought 'that felt really good.' It gave me a lot of confidence. Even if you're making a living in digital publishing (aka blogging), any writer wants to see themselves in print."
The book came out in April, and he's soon to start another one for 2017. He's reticent to say too much about it right off, beyond its connection to the shows.

In the interim, he'll continue his gig as a writer and contributing editor to and hopes to delve into some singing this summer.

"It's funny. I've been finding myself wanting to do it again, because my voice is still in good shape; I just haven't pushed myself to get out, beyond church choirs and that sort of thing. I'll look for some opportunities to do it this summer. It's a part of me, and I don't want it to be sitting there gathering dust."

He blogs, too, on current events, history and "bad ideas." His life-coaching parody, Your Life Coach, appears on twitter as @lifecoachers. It boasts 41,000 followers and the honor of being blocked by life-coaching guru Depak Chopra.

"I noticed that Twitter was full of people who presented themselves as life coaches," he said. "They were saying the sort of rote things you can get in any book. My friends got together with me to do it. We were all adding lines." Others noticed, and followed. Some of them—though he didn't realize it—were famous in their own right, like—shall we say—rock stars. "They would re-tweet it and suddenly I had a lot of followers. That's how social media works. You can become friends with somebody who has a million followers."

A self-described "recovering fat guy," he finds time away from his sedentary occupation to keep trim, frequently taking runs in his neighborhood. Though he's from Tennessee, he and his wife have enjoyed living in Worcester for the past four years. "In a funny way, we really find it charming," he said. "There are these circles of neighborhoods radiating out from the city center. We're right on the border between where it can get a little hectic, a few break-ins, and such, and a block away—where it's always very pleasant. Being from the South, I've lived in apartments and in suburbs, but never in this urban setting. When Spring comes, you pop your windows open and immediately you can hear everyone doing their business."

Though there's a good-sized list of digital publications he's written for, he enjoyed doing a book. "It's a lot more fun than I anticipated it would be," Huff said.
He's an expert on criminal justice and cyber crime—fields of expertise he gained by doing his job well.
"You've got to work, work, work," he said of freelancing. "You can't take a break from what you're doing."