Thursday, February 26, 2009


It will come as no surprise that I love words and language and the art of combining those two to create something out of nothing astonishes me daily.

One of the things I love about my job is that I am surrounded by words. There's not too many careers in which you can discuss suspensive hyphenation (as I did today) or the usage of a virgule (I still miss the reporter who spent hours tracking down this proper style) or when you uppercase City Council or Fire Department (as we do nearly daily in our office).

Those conversations go on all around me among Boomers, Gen-Xers and Millenialls. It's nice to know I'm not alone.

And there's hope for the future too as I was reminded tonight.

I had the opportunity this evening to be a judge at the Lake County Spelling Bee. How exciting to be among young people who share my fascination with words. I was in awe of their poise and certainly don't remember myself being as confident in my middle school years. It was nail-biting in those final rounds. I (sadly) could have spent the entire evening poring over the book of words, reading their origins and definitions, chuckling over some of the notations. (The book lists guitar as one of the words it is required to give the part of speech and definition for as it could easily be confused with another word. Huh?)

Alas, I could not stay there all night reading the dictionary. Duty called. There's a sink full of dishes, a mountain of laundry, a pile of bills ... Who am I kidding? There's "Your Heart Belongs To Me" by Dean Koontz sitting next to me ...

- Tricia Ambrose


Wednesday, February 25, 2009

You down with POD?

As the de facto literary critic of The News-Herald, I receive a lot of self-published and print-on-demand books from local authors. I never crack the cover on most of them.

At the best of times, I can review maybe three or four books a month. When life gets busier, that number drops to zero. Consequently, I’m picky about what books I review. If I have two books — one from an author that has already survived the rigorous query/agent/publisher gauntlet, and the second from an unknown who sent their text to iUniverse or PublishAmerica — I’ll always pick the former.

Anyone — I repeat, anyone — can get published by these POD companies. There is no guaranteed quality control. I’ve received POD books with typos that could make a sixth-grade English teacher cry. I’m not saying everything sent by a major publisher is automatically better than any self-published text, but books from publishers have already been endorsed by someone besides the author.

I’m pretty sure 98 percent of the literate population has wanted to write a book at some point. POD publishers allow anyone to fulfill this dream, for the right price.

My biggest concern with POD publishers is not the lack of quality control. If people want to hold a copy of their dream, I see no problem with that, as long as they don’t expect me to review it for The News-Herald.

I think POD publishers are parasitic. They make their profit from authors, so they have no interest in selling their books. If a POD author makes a profit, and most of them do not, it is because of the tenacity and marketing savvy of the author.

Ideally, authors and publishers should work symbiotically. Both have something invested in the final product, so both promote it however they can.

Plenty of scams await the inexperienced author. Fake agents will try to bilk you for money. “Expert” editors may charge exorbitant fees to tighten text. Writers need to research anyone they work with and make certain their editors or agents are on the level.

And while I wouldn’t qualify POD publishers as a scam — they provide exactly what they promise, which is, your book at a price — I think they are diluting bookshelves and even hurting authors with potential. Writers need to suffer some rejection. The first thing Hemingway wrote was probably crap. Same with Chuck Palahniuk. Same with anyone. Writers improve by persistence and criticism.

If an author gets frustrated because nobody likes their manuscript, they may use a POD instead or rewriting or pursuing a new, better idea. PODs are easy, and easier rarely means better when it comes to art.

Once again, I am not saying there are no good POD books. But it is very difficult to discern them from the masses. First-time authors especially get lost in the morass. I understand why writers get frustrated and go the POD route. But it takes diligence to stand out from the pack.

Jason Lea,

P.S. I have written a story about PODs and self-publishing for this Sunday’s Progress section in The News-Herald, which precipitated this post. The two authors with whom I spoke, Deanna Adams and Ruth Fawcett, did a good job of laying out the strengths and weaknesses of self-publishing and print-on-demand publishers.

Adams — who has worked with major publishers but used a POD for her latest book, “Confessions of a Not-So-Good Catholic Girl,” — said it better than I can:

I still plan on publishing with traditional publishers in the future. Credibility is still of upmost importance to serious authors, and there are still those in the media, as we spoke about, who frown on self-pub authors and in some cases, rightfully so! So until that world changes, I’ll still be using traditional publishers.

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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

What the French call a certain Jay Nest Kwa

I spent about 12 hours reading 458 pages of Gregory Rabassa last weekend.

Never heard of him? Neither had I until I read the back cover of “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”

But didn’t Gabriel García Márquez write that? Well, sort of. He wrote “Cien Años de Soledad” in 1967. Then, he waited for three years while Rabassa’s schedule cleared, so he could translate it to English.

Márquez was even known to say the English translation of his story was better than the Spanish original. (I’ll have to take Márquez’s word for it, since my Spanish hovers at a second-grade level.)

Translators have a rough deal. They are one part necessary evil and one part artist. Would it be better if we could all read Tolstoy in the original Russian? Sure, I guess. Honestly, I have no idea. (I can count the Russian words I know on one finger. Gazpacho is Russian, right?)

Were it not for Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, I would be incapable of understanding “Anna Karenina.” (Even with them, I’m pretty sure I missed something.)

“Don Quixote,” “The Brothers Karamazov,” “The Aeneid,” pretty much any religious text that isn’t the Book of Mormon… most bookshelves are dependent on these invisible hands. They have to take one artist’s words, translate it to a different language, but preserve the story and the art.

How do you translate the Italian pun of traddutore/traditore into English? How do you maintain the rhythm of a French stanza while transforming it into another language? It’s like trying to recreate “Night Stars” with charcoal or “Pour Some Sugar on Me” into folk rock. (I would listen to that.)

I have enough trouble trying to rewrite what some people say to me in English, let alone leaping the language barrier.

So I guess what I’m trying to say is, thank you, Rabassa. Thank you, Pevear and Volokhonsky. Language is still the easiest way people have to communicate, and you span the barriers that divide us.

So the next time you’re reading Márquez, Voltaire or Sun Tzu, flip the book over and remember the translator. They are just as much artists as the authors.

-Jason Lea,

P.S. Rabassa has written a book called “If This Be Treason: Translation and its Dyscontents” about the art of translation. I have not read it and, as such, cannot recommend it. But I liked the last thing I read by him, so it might be worth a gander.

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Monday, February 23, 2009

Books trump movies

In just about every instance, I prefer the book to the movie.

Some are equally good ("Gone with the Wind," "Rebecca," "Mystic River"), but I can't think of any I liked more. And I'm always amazed at people who will sit transfixed by a more than two-hour long film but would never sit with a book for that long.

I say they don't know what they're missing.

While a director's take on a novel is certainly interesting, to me it's just his - or her - view, and I prefer to form my own opinions of the work, not passively sit through someone else's.

It's just as easy to lose yourself in a good novel as it is a good movie. You do "forget" you're reading after a while. (For comparison's sake, when "watching" "Passion of the Christ" I forgot I was essentially reading subtitles. That's what a good story will do.)

Which leads me to "The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency" coming to HBO. The series is just seven episodes, and the pilot is drawing attention as the last work of director Anthony Minghella.

A friend of mine turned me on to this series of novels by Alexander McCall Smith with its unforgettable lead character, Precious Ramotswe. I've only read the first four books in the series but the rest are on my list. You wouldn't think there'd be much connection between a Botswana detective and an Ohio editor, but you'd be surprised (I sure was).

It's even "What People Are Talking About" according to Vogue magazine! (Not sure that's a ringing endorsement for those of us who don't summer in the Hamptons and spend thousands on this season's it bag, but whatever.)

So, while I don't have HBO and likely will never see this series, perhaps because of it some HBO viewers may pick up the novels and discover their own connections with this unlikely heroine.

- Tricia Ambrose

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Friday, February 20, 2009

In celebration of blogs

I can’t believe we’ve already been together a month. It seems like just a few days ago I was telling you how I hated Charles Dickens and you were asking me if I even read books.

Usually, I celebrate my month-aversaries by forgetting the date, but let’s try something different.

Today I’ll tell you about some of the blogs I frequent while I should be working. (Don’t judge. You do it too. You’re probably doing it right now.)

The self-proclaimed comics curmudgeon breaks down the daily funnies and explains to you why they are not funny at all. I’m impressed with how much satire he can ring from three panels of exposition. (Or only one panel when he’s critiquing Marmaduke.)

I appreciate any blog that takes a serious look at the inane or an inane look at the serious, and this site is certainly the former. If you’re still on the fence about adding the comics curmudgeon to your rotation, consider this. Joshreads got me to care about Mark Trail. Yeah, he’s that good.

All due praises to my friend who turned me onto Free Darko (providing the best in Slovenian farm league analysis and reporting since 1968.)

I can’t tell you with any certainty what Free Darko is about. There’s a lot of good, in-depth basketball analysis; but saying FD is about basketball is as limiting as saying “Citizen Kane” is about a sled.

(Hyperbole is when anybody compares anything to “Citizen Kane.”)

To hint at FD’s contents, I offer this. A recent post asks if the current NBA atmosphere has morphed from a three-headed dialectic of world, self and pastime into a Platonic ideal where the rhythms of craft tamp down man and his problems. (Their words, not mine.) If that’s the kind of discussion you want to be part of, FD is for you.

You thought I was going to ignore Mentor’s Reader? Really?

I’m not just throwing Amanda D., the author, a bone because she reads (and occasionally comments) on this blog. In fact, I’d be more likely to tease her for linking to something called the Totally Tween blog. In her defense, I’m pretty sure the tween thing is work related.

As a rule, I avoid literary blogs. They tend to be self-indulgent. (Example: My hip-hopper/author analogue post.) But Amanda has a simple mission. She wants to recommend a book you’ll like.

Sure, it’s fun to use Jane Austen quotes to blow off your spouse or argue with your boss about Junot Diaz; but sometimes all you want from a book blog is something new to read. Amanda’s good for that. (So is my co-blogger, Tricia.)

Amanda’s concise, funny and not too proud to admit that she never read “To Kill a Mockingbird.” (Though she should be penalized for beginning one post with “Oh my gosh, you guys.”)

As a matter of tact, I should remind you of the other News-Herald blogs. (My personal favorite is the entertainment blog. I approve of anything that compares Jerry of Tom & Jerry fame to A-Rod. I avoid the pet blog because I cannot stand cute animals. Seriously, I cannot. It must stem from a childhood trauma involving a fluffy rabbit.)

- Jason Lea

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Thursday, February 19, 2009

Less than a week, and I'm hooked

It hasn't even been a week, and I'm hooked.

I signed up last Friday for an online book club through the Morley Library Web site.

There are several "clubs" to choose among - fiction, business, science fiction, audio, nonfiction, romance, mystery, pre-publication, teen, good news and thriller. I was tempted to click on all of them but wisely decided to see how it went with one before committing to 11.

I opted to start with nonfiction. My list of to-read novels is already pretty lengthy; so I saw this an an opportunity to broaden my horizons a bit.

According to the site, each weekday you'll be emailed a five-minute selection from that week's book and by the end of the week you will have read two or three chapters.

Sounded simple enough. And it is.

This week, we nonfiction folks are reading "The Ungarnished Truth" by Ellie Mathews. (ISBN: 9780425219454) It's the memoir of this Pillsbury Bake-Off winner. I have to say, it's a book I never would have picked off a shelf, but I am enjoying it. Although I'm someone who would happily eat the same exact thing every day, I can appreciate those who like to create new dishes and am learning more about what goes into that.

Each installment comes with a Dear Reader from Suzanne - who lives in Florida, so much as I might like to attend the upcoming book club Birthday Bash, I don't think that will happen.

There's also the opportunity for readers to comment on the books or even reserve a copy at Morley.

It is easy enough to skip down to the actual excerpt and just start reading as I've been doing.

And I do have a new anticipation when I log on to my email account.

Perhaps I'll add business next week. Or maybe good news. Who couldn't use more of that?!

- Tricia Ambrose


Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Wisdom of the Tao Te Ching as it applies to barroom discourse

One of my hobbies is reading religious texts. A Bible, Book of Mormon, Qu’ran, Tao Te Ching, Bhagavad-Gita and excerpts from the Talmud share space on my book shelf.

I find them interesting (except the genealogies, hate genealogies) and think it helps me to understand people’s background better.

More than anything else, it provides me with little tidbits of knowledge that I can use at inappropriate times. My personal favorite is the Tao Te Ching because it’s short, eschews unnecessary exposition and nobody at Willoughby Brewing Company is familiar enough with it to call me on a misquote.

And it doesn’t take years of study or a minor in Eastern religions to sprinkle your bar talk with ancient wisdom. No, all you need is this blog.

For example, ladies, if some attractive man lays on the flattery and tries to get your number, tell him, “Sincere words are not beautiful. Beautiful words are not sincere.” Then, suggest he buy you a drink.

(This also works if the guy is hunchbacked with a lazy eye but it might be misconstrued as flirting.)

Contrarily, if your friend is hammered and needs to sober up, say, “Nothing under heaven is softer or weaker than water, and yet nothing is better.” Then, swap his Gin & Tonic with tap water. If you wedge a lime on the end of the glass, he may not notice the switch.

If your drunk friend doesn’t know how to get home, tell him, “Undertake difficult tasks by approaching what is easy in them. Do great deeds by focusing on their minute aspects.” Then, take his freakin’ keys and call him a cab.

Finally, if some full-time jerk/part-time bodybuilder picks a fight with you, say, “Act through nonaction. Handle affairs through noninterference. Taste what has no taste.”

Then, while Enormo is trying to understand the rhetoric, pay your tab and get out of there.

-Jason Lea,

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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Sorry I found her

"Finding Me" (ISBN 978 0 7582 1676 2) by Darnella Ford is the first book to disappoint me in a long time.

I expected more from such a promising start.

Blaze James and her twin sister live in abject poverty with their abusive, drunken father and resigned mother. A fire devastates the family, leaving their father dead and her twin horribly disfigured.

An interesting premise, don't you think? Not.

I thought what would follow would be focus on the twins' relationship. What would it be like to be the beautiful sister? The maimed one? How did this change the family dynamic?

What I got instead was, as the back cover touts, "a love beyond expectations." (And we aren't talking familial love here.)

Yet, even this relationship dynamic is glossed over - albeit in graphic sexual detail. It was all very movie-of-the-week.

This is not, as the title would suggest, a coming-of-age novel or even a discovering one's true self story - either of which could have been fascinating.

- Tricia Ambrose

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Monday, February 16, 2009

What's Love Got to Do with It?

My wife and I watched the Geauga Lyric Theater Guild’s performance of “Romeo and Juliet” this weekend.

I admire Shakespeare’s knack for characterization. Gore Vidal once said, “Each writer is born with a repertory company in his head. Shakespeare has perhaps 20 players, and Tennessee Williams has about 5, and Samuel Beckett one — and maybe a clone of that one. I have 10 or so, and that’s a lot. As you get older, you become more skillful at casting them.”

In other words, all authors have a finite amount characters they can write. They might switch the character’s name or gender, add a speech impediment, but they remain the same character.

Plenty of brilliant authors have less than 10 characters in them. Shakespeare had more than anyone. Mercutio is different from Romeo who is different from Juliet who is different from Hamlet, Laertes, Cordelia, Falstaff, Brutus, Iago and so on.

Shakespeare had no qualms about borrowing plots from myth, history and other writers. There are, after all, only so many stories to tell. His genius lay in the language and his characters.

I both enjoy and respect Shakespeare. (I read plenty of authors whom I respect but do not enjoy — Dickens, for example — or enjoy but merit less.) What I do not enjoy is when people call “Romeo and Juliet” a love story.

It’s a great story; but it is not, as News-Herald theater critic Bob Abelman called it, “the world’s greatest love story.”

Instead, “Romeo and Juliet” is one of the best stories about teenage lust and morbidity.

Romeo is capriciously amorous. He’s already smitten by Rosaline before the curtain rises but forgets her with one glance at Juliet. Had Romeo lived, I’m sure he’d regret his quick marriage and pine for the next bella in less than a month.

(Can you imagine Romeo and Juliet five years later, disaffected and arguing over whether to name their son Tybalt or Mercutio.)

Meanwhile, Juliet is obsessed with mortality. She threatens to kill herself four of five times before her happy dagger finds the mark. “Nurse, tell me what happened to Romeo or I’ll kill myself.” “Dad, if you make me marry Paris, I’ll kill myself.” “Cook, if you make macaroni one more time, I’ll kill myself.”

Even when she’s happy, death fascinates her. After she marries Romeo, she notes that when her husband dies, she wants to chop him into tiny pieces and throw him into the sky so he can shine like the stars. This is not just a pretty soliloquy. It’s a glimpse into her morbid mind.

Who — moments after their marriage — starts talking about burial options and dismemberment?

Romeo and Juliet are both teens — prone to hormonal overreaction. One is a fickle lover, the other a necro-obsessive. Their shared tragedy is guaranteed from the opening monologue.

So, no, “Romeo and Juliet” is not about love. It’s about lust, isolationism, prejudice and the deluge of emotions that come with puberty, but not love.

Of course, that doesn’t make it any less brilliant.

-Jason Lea,

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Friday, February 13, 2009

Brush with "greatness"

The closest I'll ever come to have my picture taken with President Barack Obama could be heading to Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Lyndhurst between 2 and 4 p.m. Monday and standing next to the life-size "Obama."

Among other Presidents Day activities at the store will be a special story time for kids at 11 a.m. and the replaying of the most recent inauguration. Artist Butler Reid will be there from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 4 to 7 p.m. to sign and sell his limited edition lithographs of Obama.

The store is at 2419 Cedar Road. Call 216-691-7000 or go to

If first ladies are of more interest to you mark your calendar for March 7. At 2 p.m., Lucretia Garfield and Eleanor Roosevelt will be at Morley Library, 184 Phelps St., Painesville. Call 440-352-3383.

- Tricia Ambrose

Reading Mr. Wright

Richard Wright had the type of childhood that could only produce a serial killer or a perspicacious author. Fortunately, he became the latter.

Wright’s autobiography, “Black Boy,” details Wright’s childhood, growing up black in Mississippi during the 1920s — before the era of Medgar Evers, Andrew Goodman, James Chaney or Michael Schwerner.

Wright plays a trick on the reader. From our first introduction to the author — when he carelessly burns most of his parents’ house and hides because he does not want to be beaten — he leads us to believe that he might be unstable.

He’s a drunkard by the age of six, begging sips from saloon dwellers and repeating their vulgarities. He accidentally embarrasses his grandma at church and threatens his aunt with a knife.

But Wright observes that he is a product of his environment (before talk shows and sidewalk psychiatrists made that phrase a miserable cliché.)

White folk abuse Wright, black people do not understand Wright’s inability to acclimate to the status quo and his family alternately rejects and assaults him.

Wright might be crazy, but, if he is, it’s because the only safe place to hide was in-sanity.

In other words, if Wright’s childhood was an asylum, it is difficult to tell if he is the warden or another patient.

But thank goodness for Wright’s abusive, psychologically scarring childhood. Without it, we wouldn’t have “Native Son” or “Uncle Tom’s Children.” He says it better than I can:

Because I had no power to make things happen outside of me in the objective world, I made things happen within. Because my environment was bare and bleak, I endowed it with unlimited potentialities, redeemed it for the sake of my own hungry and cloudy yearning.

We reap the benefit of Wright’s unlimited potentialities in “Black Boy."

-Jason Lea,

P.S. This concludes my Black History Month miniseries. Next time, I'll have something for all of you Valentine's Day romantics.

P.P.S. Richard Wright was the alias I used in college when I didn’t want a woman to know my real name. Consequently, if you were one of the women — there were not many — who thought they met a man with the same name as a brilliant American author at a bar in Ohio University from 2002 to 2005, I apologize. You were too good for me anyhow.


Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Now you has jazz

I don’t bother with most poetry. I rarely “get” it.

That’s not a criticism of the art form or an opinion of its worth. Poetry's just not what I usually grab from the bookshelf.

I am a storyteller, professionally. I make my living telling nonfiction stories.

Sure, they tend to be stories about criminals or fact-filled features and they rarely last longer than one day before they are recycled, but they are stories nonetheless.

Consequently, I have little use for obfuscated language or symbolism for symbolism’s sake, and poetry is more prone to indulge in that than prose.

But I’ve always loved Langston Hughes. Of course, Langston wrote a lot more than poetry. His short stories and columns, featuring the appropriately named Simple, prove that if you can write, you can write anything.

However—in the same way that Paul McCartney will always be remembered as one-fourth of the Beatles, no matter what Wings did—Langston will always be remembered for his poetry.

My affection for the man is simple. He wrote words to songs that didn’t exist. And while I don’t always “get” poetry, I understand music.

Before I wrote stories, I played jazz piano. I hear the harmonic intervals in a laugh. I tap syncopated snare lines on my desk when I’m nervous. Lo-kan-kan-pi-kan-kan. I wandered onto a backstreet during my honeymoon, so I could buy bootleg Lucky Dube CDs.

I can’t get through my 15-minute commute to work without McCoy Tyner or Isaac Hayes or Wu-Tang or The Clash.

And Langston—more than any other writer I know—understands where music and poetry converge.

When I read “The Weary Blues,” I can hear the drowsy syncopated tune. And it’s not just the subject matter. His pacing, his rhythm. I can hear the chords shift. One-Four-One-Four-Five.

To the tune o’ those Weary Blues.
With his ebony hands on each ivory key
He made that poor piano moan with melody

Then, Langston hits you with a horn stab.

O Blues!

Langston wrote blues. He wrote swingers, he wrote spirituals, he wrote ballads. He wrote the sweetest love songs nobody sang.

I would liken you
To a night without stars
Were it not for your eyes.

Then, just as the music was changing, Langston changed too. When, melody and swing gave away to complexity and lightning-on-methamphetamine licks, Langston decided to write bebop.

With “Montage of a Dream Deferred,” he wrote a poem that could have been a laboratory child constructed from the spliced genes of Charlie Parker, Gwendolyn Brooks and George Gershwin.

Down in the bass
That easy roll
Rolling like I like it
In my soul
Riffs, smears, breaks.

So I can die not “getting” poetry; because, if I have Langston Hughes, I’ll always have music.

-Jason Lea,

P.S. Next time, I finish my Black History month series with Richard Wright.

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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Soul on the rocks

My friends and I thought Eldridge Cleaver was one of the coolest men alive in high school.

He reached that upper echelon of cool: Isaac Hayes cool, Nelson Mandela cool, Jay and Silent Bob cool.

Cleaver put the “Ice” in Ice T. He was the gangsta who preceded the original gangsta. Our high school minds could think of nothing cooler.

He was more “X” than Malcolm X. He didn’t just criticise the system. He raged against it. (No, we never excused or justified his raping, but we loved that he penned “Soul on Ice” from prison.)

We thought the most prestigious degree we could have was a Higher Uneducation.

In hindsight, we were pretty stupid.

Isaac Hayes, Nelson Mandela and even Kevin Smith films have all aged better for me than Cleaver’s “Ice,” which he wrote while imprisoned for rape.

I remember being wowed by his insights, such as, “The price of hating other human beings is loving oneself less.” Now, it seems like the kind of thing you could find on a coffee cup.

Cleaver — just like Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael and other civil rights authors — must be taken in context. Cleaver especially was speaking taboos. He, better than any author, explained how the impoverished view prison.

“Negro convicts... look upon themselves as prisoners of war, the victims of a vicious, dog-eat-dog social system that is so heinous as to cancel out their own malefactions.”

Then, there is “The Ogre,” his nickname for the attraction he felt toward white women. Cleaver’s dissection of white women as the standard of beauty and his self-loathing attraction toward them will be his best remembered legacy. It is still an uncomfortable but enlightening read today.

However, a lot of Cleaver’s writing has not aged as well. The love letters between his attorney and he don’t fascinate me like they used to. The imprisoned bard and the idealistic attorney felt a lot more romantic in my youth. Now, his come-ons read like a request for free legal help.

Cleaver’s view of Floyd Patterson—and any other boxer that isn’t Muhammad Ali—is overly simplistic. He seems to contend that only the most down can ever be down.

I disagree with his assessment as homosexuality as an “illness” and think it taints his discussion of James Baldwin.

But there is one thing that Cleaver got right: the importance of Malcolm X. He sees in Malcolm X both a kindred spirit and an unattainable ideal. He describes how Malcolm X’s visit to Mecca and, later, his death shook the Black Muslim Movement.

However, there’s already a civil rights author who wrote a wonderful book about Malcolm X. His name is… Malcolm X. And I’d recommend his autobiography over “Soul on Ice.”

--Jason Lea,

P.S. Next up: Hughes.

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Friday, February 6, 2009

Chance to meet the author

I thoroughly enjoy talking about books - even with people like my co-blogger who disagrees with nearly all of my opinions. But it's an added treat when you can talk to the author about a work.

Dianne Miley of Montville Township who's penned a series of books set in small-town Ohio - locals may recognize the Painesville native's blending of Chardon and Chagrin Falls - will be available to do just that from 1 to 3 p.m. Feb. 21 at Borders Books (9565 Mentor Ave.).

She's written two books in her series, with two more planned, and dubs herself an inspirational romance author. Go to her Web site for a chance to win an autographed copy of "Lilacs for Laura."

Speaking of opportunities to meet people ... The News-Herald has a "celebrity garden" (and we clearly use that term loosely!) at the Home & Garden Show at the I-X Center. I'll be there with Managing Editor Laura Kessel and City Editor John Bertosa from noon to 2 p.m. Feb. 7. Stop by our garden, beautifully put together by Landstyles Inc. in Painesville Towsnhip, and say hello.
- Tricia Ambrose


Thursday, February 5, 2009

'I think life played a trick on both of us'

In addition to being shortest month and the month in which we revere Saint Valentine with cookie cake, February is also Black History month.

While I’m not going to dedicate an entire month to authors of African descent, I will use the opportunity to mention some favorites.

Whenever I travel — which is not often — I bring home local literature. During a mission to Jamaica, I found Paulette Ramsay’s “Aunt Jen.” (ISBN 978-435910-12-9)

Sunshine, a young Jamaican girl, wants to know more about her absentee mother. The story is a series of unanswered letters written by Sunshine to her “Aunt Jen.”

Children are almost impossible to write. Authors tend to make them too precocious or too naive, caricatures of youth. Sunshine feels like an authentic child.

Even though Sunshine is the lone “voice” in the story, Ramsay fleshes out her supporting cast — the stifled Uncle Johnny, long-suffering grandparents. Even Aunt Jen’s absence helps explain her character. (Sometimes a person is defined by what they don’t do.)

A lot of authors use the “journal” or “series of letters” conceit. (Tricia wrote about one earlier this week.) Sometimes, it hurts the story. Exposition is a chore without an omniscient narrator or dialogue as a crutch. Ramsay makes it work.

Ramsay works wonders with subtlety. While Sunshine’s feelings swing farther than Big Ben’s pendulum — she is, after all, a child — Ramsay makes the smallest detail matter with her concise storytelling. For example, when Sunshine is most vexed with her mother, she stops signing her letters “your daughter” and replaces it with a simple “Sunshine.”

Ramsay occasionally slips into Jamaican patois when it suits the story, but the version I read came with a glossary of sayings, in case you don’t know what “ban you belly” means.

I recommend this book, especially for those with an interest in Caribbean culture.

--Jason Lea,

P.S. Next time around, I’ll be talking about Eldridge Cleaver.

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Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Fiction Meets Self Help

I've read my share of self-help books over the years.
Like many others, I've turned to "Smart Women, Foolish Choices," "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus" and "The New Birth Order Book: Why You Are the Way You Are" to explain away my crisis du jour.
But I had never read what amounted to a combo self-help/fiction work until this weekend.
Sheilah Vance's "Land Mines"(ISBN 9780978685416)unfolds as a diary kept by the newly separated Carolyn James. With each entry, we learn a little bit more about this woman coming to terms with her new life as a single mom. Even those not going through this particular struggle can identify with her financial worries, concerns about her children's emotions and her fears about the future.
James turns to several self-help books herself in her quest (all of which are real works). And like many books that include discussion questions at the end for book clubs, this one featured questions to ask yourself to avoid some of the land mines James encountered.
All in all, "Land Mines" was a quick and entertaining read, but I prefer my messages to be a little more subtle.
- Tricia Ambrose

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Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The post in which I compare Truman Capote to Wyclef Jean

The News-Herald proudly presents (though in no way endorses or is liable for:)

A Jason Lea Production:

The self-indulgent post in which I alienate most of my readers.

I previously compared James Joyce to, of all people, Lil Wayne, based on their shared proclivity for combining seemingly random words into a fascinating, but not always coherent, final product. After giving it some thought, I realized that comparison was unfair to Joyce (and not for the obvious reasons.)

Joyce began as a conventional writer. (Well, more conventional than “Ulysses” and “Finnegan’s Wake.”) Then, bored with the conventions of his art form, he slowly branched into more eccentric territory. This means Joyce is not Lil Wayne. He’s Andre 3000 — better known to most of you as the guy from Outkast who sang “Hey Ya.”

This epiphany started me on a dangerous line of thought. What hip-hoppers would be proper analogues to other authors? Here are some of the others with which I came up.

She wrote one book, and it was so good she never had to write another one. Harper Lee is... Lauryn Hill. (Yes, I realize Lee also deserves some credit for Capote’s “In Cold Blood.” We’ll consider that her “The Score” and Capote can be Wyclef.)

Critics showered him with acclaim and a lot of people drank the Kool-Aid, making him a good but thoroughly overrated artist. Jonathan Franzen is... Lupe Fiasco.

He hails from the dirty south... of England. (His novels put the sex in Wessex.) And all of his best work is about relationships and God. Thomas Hardy is... Big Boi. (You know, that other guy in Outkast. No? Nobody?)

He may not be the greatest writer of all time, but he probably influenced them. After his initial success, every author changed their style to be more like him. Christopher Marlowe is... Rakim.

Finally, for Kyle, he’s had more commercial success than critical. Despite his limited subject matter, he’s become an absolute superstar; and he’ll be remembered as one of the most successful in his field, if nothing else. John Grisham... is Snoop Dogg.

I also have an analogy for Franz Kafka and Kool Keith, but who would get it? Do Kafka and Kool Keith have any mutual fans? If they exist, I’d love to hear from them.

I’m sure this game works for other genres as well; so I ask you, the reader, what British Invasion rocker would Mark Twain be? What jazz band is most like the Bronte sisters? Who is the Bootsy Collins of postmodernism?

Yeah, I bet you didn’t expect homework... or someone to compare Andre 3000 and James Joyce.

--Jason Lea,

P.S. I’m certain this blog will score no cheap hits from boolean searches for “Christopher Marlowe” and “Rakim.”

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Monday, February 2, 2009

Bunches of books

I seem to find myself reading books in bunches.
For a while it seemed like every book I pulled from the shelves featured characters in a sexual identity crisis, then it was those with a connection to the Holocaust, then middle-aged women who were newly single.
Perhaps book publishers see the success of one type of novel and then rush into print others like it or perhaps I enjoy one novel so much I'm subconsciously choosing others like it.
Whatever the case, lately it seems the terminally ill have been my focus.
"Souls Raised from the Dead" by Doris Betts (ISBN 0679426213) takes the reader into the family of Mary Grace Thompson, a 12-year-old girl who lives with her divorced father in North Carolina.
When she is diagnosed with kidney disease, old family hurts come to the fore.
The novel raises interesting questions about parenthood and family dynamics.
I know I'll be checking out the Bs on my next library visit for other works by this Southern author.
- Tricia Ambrose

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Sunday, February 1, 2009

It's official, there is nothing to watch on TV

Good news everybody, the dumbening has stopped.

For the first time in more than 25 years, adults in this country are reading more literature, according to a study by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Apparently, the number of people reading literature — defined as novels, short stories, plays or prose — has leaped seven percent since 2002.

This can only mean one thing. Creditors are repossessing televisions.

Of course, to qualify as a reader of literature, you only have to read one fiction book a year. That’s right, one “Goodnight Moon” and you’re in. Granted, more than 100 million people still didn’t qualify.

But good news is good news, and I shouldn’t be cynical about more people reading.

Some interesting tidbits from NEA’s study:

1. The biggest leap came from 18- to 24-year-olds. An additional nine percent of us — I can still say “us” for another 10 months — qualified as readers. I wonder how much Harry Potter and Twilight buoyed those numbers.

2. Poetry is still on the decline despite reading’s overall rise. That’s no shock. There are almost no outlets for new poets, unless they also play guitar and have the cheekbones of a runway model. Then, they can get a record deal.

3. Nearly 15 percent of all U.S. adults read literature online in 2008. I can’t imagine how. If I read more than 10 pages on a computer, my eyes cross. The phosphorescence emanating from the monitor makes it difficult for me to focus. In fact, I have to take several nap breaks while preparing each blog post.

Dozens of factors contributed to the reading upswing — writers’ strikes and reality programming drove people away from television. The economy kept people away from concerts and other events. (I’d say the recession hurt Hollywood, but box office numbers were up in 2008. I guess we still had enough money to see The Dark Knight three times.)

Also, a series of blockbuster movies — the aforementioned Potters, Spyderwick Chronicles, Chronicles of Narnia, even Lord of the Rings — got kids reading the source material. (Name the last movie you took your kids to see that wasn’t based on a book? Not counting Pixar films.)

So we’re reading more. Sure, we’re not reading poetry and about 15 percent of us are squinting at a monitor that will ultimately blind us; but, otherwise, it’s all good news.

--Jason Lea,

P.S. Actually, all of us are squinting at a monitor that will blind us, unless you have the hardcover version of my blog... which doesn't exist.