Thursday, August 16, 2012

Books of Interest by Writers of Color—Ruth Behar, Stanley Banks, Xánath Caraza

Ruth Behar, An Island Called Home: Returning to Jewish Cuba (Rutgers University Press) Behar’s latest book is the beautifully illustrated story of her journey back to the island she left for the United States at age five. She seeks traces of Jewish life and spirituality in the land of Fidel Castro. What has survived? And what has been lost? Her search is accomplished and recorded with the compassion and keen observation for which Behar is famed in her groundbreaking anthropological studies, but it is the poet Behar who brings to life the people who struggle to care for the legacy of Judaism in Cuba.

Behar is probably most famous for her work in anthropology, which transformed that field of privileged observers with such revolutionary works as Translated Woman: Crossing the Border with Esperanza’s Story (Beacon Press) and The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart (Beacon Press). She has edited pioneering literary anthologies of Cuban and Cuban American writers and of women anthropologists whose artistry informs their ethnography. Her own poetry, stories, and essays have been published in a wide variety of prestigious journals and anthologies. She wrote, directed, and produced an 82-minute documentary, Adio Kerida/Goodbye Dear Love: A Cuban Sephardic Journey, which has been shown to great praise in film festivals around the world. Behar has received a McArthur Foundation “genius” grant, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Fulbright, and many other awards.

As with so many of the established writers I profile, Behar gives generously of her time and energy to help emerging writers and ethnographers. She teaches writing workshops in Tijuana, at the Macondo Writing Workshop, and even offers a workshop in creative ethnographic writing at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association. She is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan, where she is also affiliated with programs in Women’s Studies, Latina/o Studies, Latin American and Caribbean Studies, and Jewish Studies.

Here is the link for Behar’s most recent book. As always, I encourage you to order it from the university press which published it. Small independent and university presses publish the vast majority of the books by writers of color. We need to support the presses that bring these wonderful writers to us.

Stanley E. Banks, Blue Beat Syncopation (BkMk Press) Banks’ fourth book, Blue Beat Syncopation, collects the best of twenty-five years of his poetry. A product of an abusive home in some of the meanest streets in Kansas City, Missouri, Banks writes a number of poems about his bootlegger grandmother with a pistol in her pocket, who gave him the chance and strength to aim for something more. He writes about the number of his family members who have died of violence or are in prison and the hopelessness that infects whole communities.

In an interview, Banks has said, “I was born in the shit-house. You can take that and become bitter and mad and angry at the world. Or, you can take it and say, so I wasn't promised anything, I wasn't given anything, but I'm going to make something better of my life somehow and influence people in a positive way.” With his poetry full of the music of jazz and the blues and the pain of the impoverished streets, as well as with his many years of teaching and work within underserved communities, Banks has made good on that promise. He received a National Endowment for the Arts poetry fellowship and Kansas City's Writers Place Award. His first poetry collection, On 10th Alley Way, won the Langston Hughes Prize. He is artist-in-residence at Avila University and lives with his wife, poet Janet Banks, in Kansas City.

Xánath Caraza, Conjuro (Mammoth Publications) Caraza’s first book-length collection of poetry is a tri-lingual text using Spanish, English, and Nahuatl. Her poetry carries the heartbeat of the oral traditions from which she springs and the places she has visited, celebrating the word as music. Originally from Xalapa, Veracruz, Mexico, Caraza has lived in Vermont and Kansas City. She has an M.A. in Romance Languages and lectures in Foreign Languages and Literatures at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Her chapbook Corazón Pintado: Ekphrastic Poems (2012) was published by TL Press. She won the 2003 Ediciones Nuevo Espacio international short story contest in Spanish and was a 2008 finalist for the first international John Barry Award. Caraza is an advisory member of Con Tinta and a former board member of the Latino Writers Collective.

Here is the link to buy Caraza’s book. Mammoth Publications is a Native-owned press, so please support them. If we can develop more presses owned and run by writers of color, we will see more writers of color published.

This is the first full writers of color post I've done in a while. These are very labor-intensive, and demands on my time have grown. I will still do these from time to time, but I will be offering as part of this series single book reviews or notices of awards for writers of color more often. To keep to the format with which I began this series would guarantee that I'd hardly ever post another entry in it. I still hope to get through my long list of fine writers of color, even as more are added, but I will have to do it in an easier format most of the time.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Guest Blog—Debra H. Goldstein

It's always a pleasure to have Her Honor Debra H. Goldstein as a guest blogger here. Debra is a judge, a mother, a community activist, and an award-winning writer. I watch her juggle all those torches and plates in awe most of the time. When she told me of yet another project, it was one I wanted all of you to know about, as well.


I’ve always been a sucker for libraries.  My first summer memories are of watching a librarian move my paper airplane across the country reflecting the number of books I took out and returned read.  Thanks to my mother’s willingness to take me to the library, my plane moved every day!  During my school years, I checked out a book in the morning to read during the day and then read a different book each night.  I give a lot of credit to my library time and the guidance librarians gave me with my later achievements as a student, lawyer, judge, and writer.

Unfortunately,  “It’s the economy…”  “Curriculum cuts….”  “Arts and music, but athletics will be okay” are comments being heard all over the country.  School systems have long been faced with difficult choices when forced to slash programs to produce balanced budgets.  Approximately eight years ago, Jackson, Michigan’s Parkside Middle School, which previously was Parkside High School, cut funding for library acquisitions and chose to not replace the retiring long-time school librarian.  Until her health declined, she continued coming to “work” for the children. Despite documented lowering proficiency scores in reading, writing, social studies, and science, the school library became an academically unused shell. 

In 2011, fifteen concerned parents, staff, and community members, led by Heather Albee-Scott, the mother of a sixth grader, decided to bring the Parkside library back.
With space requiring rewiring and renovation, no money, boxes containing the presently owned 1000 books for 2000 students, and a few outdated computers, the Parkside Media Center group recognizedits goal was ambitious, but they also realized their efforts were an investment in their children and the future of their community. 
In October 2011, I agreed to do two books signings at Nicola’s Books in Ann Arbor, Michigan for Maze in Blue, my debut mystery set on the University of Michigan in the 1970’s.  As part of the PR for the signings, I was asked to do a ‘local girl succeeds’ interview for the Jackson Citizen Patriot and  The reporter, Leanne Smith, and I agreed to meet at Parkside so we could get some pictures in the school. I hadn’t been back to Parkside in almost forty years.  When I pulled up, the first thing I noticed was the empty parking lot – middle school students don’t drive.  The eagle statue in front of the school also seemed smaller, but the front office, except for the dates on the papers posted on the yellow walls, was unchanged.  It was a little eerie though when the assistant principal turned out to be a woman who had been in my sister’s class.  The interview was one of the high points of my trip, but I left the school with a sense of loss when I learned why students were lounging in the library space.

After reading the Maze in Blue interview, Ann Holt, a member of the Parkside Media Center committee, e-mailed me the link to an article explaining what the PMC committee is trying to do.  Cake sales, small grants, and the school board committing $80,000 from the $3.9 million it saved on projects from a 2009 bond issue have resulted in the raising of almost 1/5 of the money needed to fully bring the media center online, but the big fund-raising and donation-in-kind push efforts are scheduled for 2012/2013.  I volunteered to help. 

On October 6, 2012, almost a year to the date I was at Parkside, the Jackson District Library, Nicola’s Books, PMC and I are joining together for an author evening at Parkside that will consist of an author talk, signed copy of Maze in Blue, and hors d’oeuvres for the purchase of a $35 ticket.  All proceeds from the tax-deductible ticket purchase will go directly to the Parkside Media Center Project.  Provision has been made for those who can’t attend, but contribute at least $40 through this event via  to receive a signed copy of Maze in Blue.  Other fundraisers and solicitations to alumni and people who care about librariesfor grants, computers, software, and young adult books are planned throughout the next two years. 

In the meantime, according to Albee-Scott, that isn’t a reason to wait to reopen the library.  This summer, students worked under the guidance of Parkside graduate and Jackson District Librarian Calvin Battles to catalog and shelve the present collection. The recently accepted 2012-2013 school budget calls for a partnership with the Jackson District Library to fund a part-time librarian position.  When school resumes, the library will be waiting for students and faculty members. 

The closing of the library was a step backward, but the vision of the committee to have a fully stocked and staffed media center offers opportunity for the future.  Not only will it be another tool for Parkside to use in improving its proficiency; it will help provide an educated workforce for community growth.  As Walter Cronkite, the news commentator stated, “Whatever the cost of our libraries, the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation.”   As readers and writers, the libraries need us and we need them.

Debra adds:
I asked Heather where they could mail books if anyone wanted to do so. She replied:
“If they want to donate books they can email us at - we are thrilled to take books!”

Judge, author, litigator, wife, step-mom, mother of twins, civic volunteer, Yankee, University of Michigan graduate, and transplanted Southerner are all words used to describe Debra H. Goldstein.  She is the author of several award winning fiction and non-fiction pieces including "Legal Magic," "Malicious Mischief," "Grandma's Garden," "The Rabbi's Wife Stayed Home," "Maybe I Should Hug You," and "An Open Line."  Her debut novel, Maze in Blue, a mystery set on the University of Michigan's campus in the 1970's, was published in 2011. Her website is, and blog, "It's Not Always A Mystery," can be found at

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

SIMPLE by Kathleen George

Last year, I interviewed and profiled Kathleen George on this blog as part of my ongoing Literary Mystery Novelists series. Read it here.

Kathleen George, Simple (Minotaur Books) 333 pp. ISBN: 0312569149

Kathleen George’s sixth police procedural featuring Commander Richard Christie and Detective Colleen Greer takes a different turn. A political thriller dealing with extreme measures taken to prevent scandal from derailing a high-level political campaign,  Simple still features the authentic characters, fine writing, and shrewd plotting that have characterized all of George’s books.

Cassie Price, a beautiful, smart young woman working as a paralegal with the prestigious Connolly law firm before starting law school, gets involved in an affair with her boss, Michael Connolly, who is about to be named Republican gubernatorial candidate. Todd Simon, Michael’s handler, is ordered by the party to make sure Cassie will never become an embarrassment to Michael’s campaign. He gets her drunk and tries to seduce her himself. When that fails, Cassie’s fate is sealed.

Two detectives on the Homicide Squad who haven’t had a high-profile case in years are called to the murder of the young paralegal while Christie is returning early from vacation with his wife and children. In an effort to close the case successfully and early, the detectives pressure Cal Hathaway, the local handyman who found the body, into a confession. Deaf in one ear and mildly brain damaged from a vicious attack when a child, Cal is thrown into jail like a minnow into a shark tank. Upon seeing the taped confession and interviewing Cal in jail, Christie insists that the Homicide Squad make a more thorough investigation. This leads to bristly defensiveness on the part of the team that obtained the confession while the Homicide Squad is already tense over the romance developing between Greer and her partner Detective John Potocki.

Michael Connolly, the political golden boy, is emotionally crushed by the strangling of his young mistress and the arrest of Cal, the son of Michael’s beloved housekeeper. He soon begins to suspect Simon of the murder but lacks the will to confront him. The case quickly becomes a contest between Simon’s clever plotting and Christie and his squad’s methodical unraveling with the fates of innocent, vulnerable Cal and wealthy, charismatic Michael at stake.

This thriller offers the reader the fully realized characters, intricate plot, and accomplished prose that are George’s strong points, but it also uses powerful, telling detail to offer a subtle interrogation of power and class in American society and the collision of our political ideals with our political realities. The subtlety and assurance of this richly realized portrait of American politics sets Simple above the usual police procedural.

KATHLEEN GEORGE is the author of The Odds, which was nominated in 2010 for the Edgar for Best Novel. She is also the editor of the short story collection Pittsburgh Noir. A professor of theatre at the University of Pittsburgh, she and her husband live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Next up is a new post in the Books of Interest by Writers of Color series. Also, I'm guest-blogging on Molly Greene's blog today, talking about putting a little malice in your life. Come join in the conversation.