Amiri Baraka, playright, poet, and founder of the Black Arts Movement, has died

Amiri Baraka, controversial writer and founder of the Black Arts Movement in the 1960s and 70s, died yesterday in Newark, New Jersey.

Born Leroy Jones (he later changed the spelling to LeRoi Jones to honor the memory of Roi Ottley, an African American journalist), Baraka was a brilliant student who could not tolerate mainstream academia, becoming ever more political, especially after his brief stint in the Air Force.

His first play, Dutchman (and incendiary indictment on race relations at the time). was performed Off Off Broadway and won the 1964 Obie for Best American Play.

The assassination of Malcolm X further radicalized Baraka. He changed his name two more times, first to Imamu Ameer Bakarat and then to Amiri Baraka. He abandoned his white wife and children, founded the now-defunct Black Arts Repertory Theater, and was credited with starting the Black Arts Movement which jump-started the careers of such noteworthy authors as Nikki Giovanni, Eldridge Cleaver, and Gil-Scott Heron.

His volatile personality got him in trouble in 1979 when he assaulted his second wife, poet Amina Baraka. He was sentenced to 48 weekends in a halfway house and used that time to pen his autobiography, The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones (1984).

In 2002, he was named New Jersey Poet Laureate, a title that he held incident-free for just one month. When Baraka published Somebody Blew Up America, a furious poem about the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, with some strong anti-Semitic accusations, the governor of New Jersey demanded he resign his poet laureate post. Baraka refused so a year later the New Jersey legislature passed a law dissolving the position altogether.

Among the authors who recognized Mr. Baraka's influential, brilliant, provocative writings were Maya Angelou, Norman Mailer, and Allen Ginsberg who became a lifelong friend when they exchanged a brief correspondence written on toilet paper. He was the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1989, he won the Langston Hughes Award.

Mr. Baraka, who suffered from diabetes, was 79.

Donald Lystra, Ann Arbor author, has written a 2014 Michigan Notable Book

Donald Lystra, an Ann Arbor resident and University of Michigan alum, is once again on the Library of Michigan's Michigan Notable Books list.

Lystra's electrical engineer career morphed into fiction writing in the 1990s. His debut novel Season of Water and Ice (2010), was not only a Michigan Notable Book in 2010, but it also won the Midwest Book Award that year.

This year's entry, a short story collection, Something that Feels Like Truth (2013), is on this year's Michigan Notable Books.

Mr. Lystra and his wife, parents to two grown children, split their time between Ann Arbor and northern Michigan farm.

An Award Winner For Teens - Tragedy, Humor, and Hope

I checked out a copy of The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen when I heard it had won the 2013 Canadian Library Association Book of the Year for Children Award as well as the Michigan Library Association's 2013 "Thumbs Up" Award. As the jacket states, "Thirteen-year-old Henry's happy, ordinary life comes to an abrupt halt when his older brother, Jesse, picks up their father's hunting rifle and leaves the house one morning. What follows shatters Henry's family, who are forced to resume their lives in a new city, where no one knows their past. When Henry's therapist suggests he keep a journal, at first he is resistant. But soon he confides in it at all hours of the day and night."

Inspired by a line in Wally Lamb's The Hour I First Believed, and based around bullying and school violence, this was not as gloomy as I expected it to be. The author, Susan Nielsen, creates a unique, fresh perspective on a topic that is all too common in the news. The story is told from Henry's point of view through journal entries, and his narrative voice has all of the sweet, awkward, goofiness of a 13 year old boy. Although the subject matter is an unthinkable tragedy, the book is written with healthy layers of humor and joy mixed in. I read the whole thing in one sitting, and the characters are lingering with me days later. This young adult novel is worth reading, no matter what your age.

The country music world mourns the passing of Ray Price

The country music world mourns the passing of Ray Price

Ray Price, a giant in the country music scene for since 1951, died yesterday at his home in Mt. Pleasant, TX.

Price, a WWII vet (US Marine Corps), attended veterinary school for a brief time, singing in night clubs on the side. He was signed to Bullet Records, a Nashville-based record label. In 1951, Hank Williams called him out of the blue, inviting him to sing with Williams at the Grand Old Opry, thus cementing a lifelong friendship.

Five years later, Price revolutionized the sound of country music when he put an idea he'd had into play. He described it thus in a 1998 interview with The Washington Post: "We were having trouble getting a good clean bass sound. So instead of going with the standard 2/4 beat, I said, 'Let's try a 4/4 bass and a shuffle rhythm,' and it cut. It cut clean through."

He applied that technique to Crazy Arms and so was born the Ray Price Beat, and a skyrocketing career. Crazy Arms spent 20 weeks at No. 1.

Mr. Price's last album, [bL1285634|Last of the Breed] (2007), was a collaborative effort with Willie Nelson (whom Price discovered) and Merle Haggard. The album won a Grammy at the 50th Grammy awards in 2008.

Price's second revolutionary tweaking of the country sound was to add strings to his music. The resulting 'countrypolitan' sound was at first eschewed, and then widely copied, by all the great performers.

Ray Price was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1966.

Mr. Price, who was 87, had been battling pancreatic cancer since late last year.

Hollywood took a big hit this past week -- Peter O'Toole, Joan Fontaine, Tom Laughlin -- all gone

Three silver screen icons -- Peter O'Toole, Joan Fontaine, and Tom Laughlin -- all died within three days of each other.

Peter O'Toole, star of the classic Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and The Lion in Winter (1968), died on Saturday, December 14. He had an enormous body of work that, by his own admission, was performed while he was under the influence. His drinking tales with other famous imbibing actors (Richard Burton, Michael Caine, and Peter Finch), are legendary -- he once cut off a finger tip, sterilized it in his whiskey glass, and stuck it back on his finger. Backwards. He and Finch were denied entry to an Irish pub because it was after hours. O'Toole and Finch whipped out their checkbooks and wrote checks. To buy the pub. The actors and the pub owner (he never cashed the check), became fast friends. When the pub owner died, O'Toole and Finch were invited to the funeral and sobbed loudly. At the wrong gravesite.

O'Toole, a happily self-described hellraiser for much of his life, who was 81 when he died, was nominated for eight Oscars and yet only received an honorary Oscar in 2003 for "...[his] remarkable talents [that] have provided cinema history with some of its most memorable characters."

Joan Fontaine, whose personal life was as much a part of her celebrity as was her onscreen persona, died Sunday, December 15. Her lifelong public feud with her actor-sister Olivia de Havilland was the stuff of legends. Fontaine won her only Oscar in 1942 for her leading role in Suspicion (1941). A few years earlier, she had been offered the role of Melanie in Gone with the Wind (1939). Insulted by the offer, (she was aiming for the role of Scarlet), Fontaine said, "If it's a Melanie you want, call Olivia." The Studio did, and de Havilland became the darling of millions of movie-goers.

Ms. Fontaine's most famous role was as the unnamed second wife of Maxim de Winter, played by Laurence Olivier in the 1940 film, Rebecca, for which she was nominated for an Oscar.

Ms. Fontaine, who was 96, is survived by her sister, Ms. De Havilland

Last Thursday, December 12th, Tom Laughlin who created the Billy Jack franchise died of complications from pneumonia.

Laughlin wrote and starred in four Billy Jack movies: Born Losers (1967), Billy Jack (1971), The Trial of Billy Jack, and Billy Jack Goes to Washington (2009). Billy Jack is half caucasian, half Indian martial arts expert who sets out to fight racism. Laughlin is credited with creating the concept of 'blockbuster' movie. Laughlin eschewed the standard release protocol for new movies (opening in a few cities, with rolling releases), and released The Trial of Billy Jack nationwide, accompanied by promo ads which aired during the national news. It was a smashing success and studios adopted the model from that day on.

Laughlin died in California. He was 82.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #441

Winner of the American Booksellers Association "Indies Introduce Debut Authors" and Amazon Editors' Fall Pick", Australian Fiona McFarlane's The Night Guest * * * is also one of Kirkus Reviews' Best Fiction Book of 2013, "(a)n enrapturing debut novel that toys with magical realism while delivering a fresh fable."

Widowed Ruth Field lives alone in an isolated beach house. Her days are measured by calls from her grown sons and predictable routines. Lately, she thinks she hears a tiger on the prowl around her property at night, bringing back memories of her childhood in Fiji. One day a stranger arrives claiming to be a care worker sent by the government, and Ruth let her in, but not without suspicions that this Frida is hiding secrets. As strange things begin to happen, Ruth's sense of reality becomes shaky.

"This is a tale that soars above its own suspense to tell us, with exceptional grace and beauty, about aging, love, trust, dependence, and fear; about processes of colonization; and about things (and people) in places they shouldn't be."

"A pleasurable novel, with turns of plot and phrase both startling and elegant."

A readalike for S.J. Watson's debut Before I Go to Sleep

* * * = 3 starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #440 - "There is no odor so bad as that which arises from goodness tainted" ~ Henry David Thoreau

Ewart Hutton's debut Good People * * is one of Kirkus Reviews' Best Fiction Book of 2013, and shortlisted for the 2012 British Crime Writers' Association New Blood Dagger for best first novel.

In this "atmospheric, criminally smart" new police procedural, award-winning playwright (BBC Radio) introduces Detective Sergeant Glyn Capaldi. Disgraced and banished from Cardiff to the Welsh countryside, Capaldi (half-Welsh, half-Italian) investigates the disappearance of a van packed with young men after a night of rugby and hard drinking. Those who turn up could not explain why one of the men and the only woman in the group are missing.

In the face of opposition from the local constabulary and his superior, Capaldi delves deeper when one of the men is found hanged, and uncover a network of conflicts, betrayals, and depravity that resonates below the outwardly calm surface of rural respectability.

"(A) stunningly dark debut. The first-person narrative keeps it personal, making the detective's vulnerabilities that much more intense."

"...the plot twists are cunning, and Glyn Capaldi is the most appealing antihero this side of Ian Rankins' John Rebus."

Readers who enjoyed Peter May's The Blackhouse would not want to miss this one. (See previous FFF blog).

* * = 2 starred reviews

Pope Francis, the first Pope from the Americas, is Time Magazine's Person of the Year

Pope Francis, one of the Catholic Church's most popular pope's, was named Time Magazine's Person of the Year this morning on NBC's Today Show..

Pope Francis, born Jorge Mario Bergoglio in Argentina almost 77 years ago (December 17th is the Pontiff's birthday), was elected Bishop of Rome and absolute sovereign of Vatican City on March 13th of this year. He is a Pope of many firsts, including he is the first Jesuit priest to become a Pope and the first one born in the Americas.

In his nine short months as the 266th Pope (the anti-Popes are excluded), he has rocked the globe with his humility and his rejection of the opulent trappings of the papacy (from garments to living quarters to transportation). But it his public walking of the talk of the Gospels that has galvanized peoples of all faiths and nationalities. Pope Francis focuses a light on the need to help the poor, feed the hunger, and heal the sick through social action. He urges the Church to be pragmatic in its priorities -- he views the intense focus on gay marriage, abortion, and the "tyranny of unfettered capitalism" as impediments to the important work that needs to be done to restore compassion worldwide and renewed efforts to bridge differences that block the way to world peace.

Social media went into overdrive this summer when it was reported that Pope Francis said even atheists can go to heaven. That's not exactly what he said in response to an open letter written by a well-respected atheist and published in La Repubblica. This translation gets close to the heart of the matter: "First of all, you ask if the God of the Christians forgives those who do not believe and do not seek faith. Given that—and this is fundamental—God's mercy has no limits if he who asks for mercy does so in contrition and with a sincere heart -- the issue for those who do not believe in God is in obeying their own conscience."

Pope Francis has enchanted the world by his embrace of social media. In addition to being a presence on Facebook, the Pope can be found on Twitter at @Pontifex. At last count, he was up to 3,349,929 followers.

To learn more about his approach to life and religion, read his latest book, published earlier this year -- On Heaven and Earth: Pope Francis on Faith, Family, and the Church in the 21st Century.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #439

A recast of the First Wives Club meets An Ex to Grind, Saginaw debut novelist Robin Devereaux-Nelson's In Violet's Wake * is an unexpected delight.

This Fabri Literary Prize winner is a buddy road trip story. When Violet leaves her sixth husband Marshall VanDahmm high and dry, he is sure her second husband Costa is to blame. A heated brawl turns into an unlikely friendship and one by one, Marshall and Costa seek out Violet's other ex-husbands (minus #1, the sainted Winston), to help themselves understand what they loved about Violet and why she abandoned them all. When they learn Violet plans to track down Jake, her old high school love and “the one who got away,” the men set off on a road trip to find Jake to warn him.

"A charming anti-romance. Devereaux-Nelson's group of guys learns a touching lesson from the girls: Sometimes, all you need is to talk it over with friends."

Readers might also enjoy The Ninth Wife by Amy Stoll - when Bess Gray learned that the man she is about to marry has eight ex-wives, she sets out on a cross-country journey to meet them; and Jonathan Tropper's This is Where I Leave You - " a riotously funny, emotionally raw novel about love, marriage, divorce, family, and the ties that bind--whether we like it or not."

* = starred review

2013 Young People’s Literature NBA Winner Announced

NBA winner medalNBA winner medal

The Thing About Luck has received the 2013 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.

Twelve-year-old Summer knows that kouun means “good luck” in Japanese, and this year her family has none of it. Just when she thinks nothing else can possibly go wrong, an emergency whisks her parents away to Japan—right before harvest season. Summer and her little brother, Jaz, are left in the care of their grandparents, who come out of retirement in order to harvest wheat and help pay the bills.

The thing about Obaachan and Jiichan is that they are old-fashioned and demanding, and between helping Obaachan cook for the workers, covering for her when her back pain worsens, and worrying about her lonely little brother, Summer just barely has time to notice the attentions of their boss’s cute son. But notice she does, and what begins as a welcome distraction from the hard work soon turns into a mess of its own.

Having thoroughly disappointed her grandmother, Summer figures the bad luck must be finished—but then it gets worse. And when that happens, Summer has to figure out how to change it herself, even if it means further displeasing Obaachan. Because it might be the only way to save her family.

Author Cynthia Kadohata won the 2005 Newbery Medal for the book Kira-Kira, the Jane Addams Peace Award and Pen USA Award winner for Weedflower, Cracker!, Outside Beauty, A Million Shades of Gray, and several critically acclaimed adult novels. She lives with her son and dog in West Covina, California.

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