PN Unscripted - A Talk with Mitch Kaplan of Books and Books

Mitch Kaplan is the owner of Books and Books, an independent bookstore in South Florida, a past president of the American Booksellers Association, and a primary organizer of the Miami Book Fair.  We talked about the reading life, bookstores as community centers, and literary culture in the digital age.

Permalink for podcast of PN Unscripted - Mitch Kaplan

PN Feedburner | PN iTunes | PN Twitter | PN Facebook | PN Video | PN Goodreads


Classroom Notes - 'Teach: Tony Danza' - Season 1: Episode 3, "Just Say No"

     The central dilemma for ‘Teach; Tony Danza’ is right there in the teaser: Hollywood Tony goes to the Phillies game to sing the National Anthem, but Mr. Danza admits it: He should be home preparing lessons.

       Act 1, the real resentment is starting to set in.  Hollywood’s talking about singing at the baseball game and how he has to play a date in Atlantic City, and one bright student, Algernon, has checked out.  When Danza’s mentor gives a warning about not pushing it too much, Mr. Danza listens, as he’s starting to do more often.  Mr. Danza says, as so many teachers do, “I gotta find a way to reach that kid.”  And when the mayor makes an official request for Hollywood to serve as master of ceremonies for a charity event, another distraction from the classroom is added.

     In Act 2, this theme of "reaching the kid" informs the discussions between some of the football players, as well as a chat between the head football coach and Danza.  Does yelling at the varsity players work? For some, and not for others.  This fundamental question is abandoned quickly, though, as Hollywood is drawn into rehearsals for the mayor's wife charity show.  Danza brings in a ringer from his showbiz connections to help direct the show, but the high expectations and long hours for rehearsal aren't going over well with the students who've been enlisted into the publicity stunt.

     When a veteran Geometry teacher stops by to deliver a gut check -- "Are you here to act like a teacher, or are you hear to teach?" -- Tony doesn't have a good answer.  Later, during a show rehearsal, Tony tries to explain to his showbiz colleagues, "I get up at 4:30 every morning."  Danza is stretched thin, he's not reaching his students, but he won't take the time to figure out what he needs to do make those little adjustments and accommodations to make a class work. It takes time.

     For most educators, teaching is not the kind of job where you can stroll through the door at the first bell and figure it out as you go along.  You have 40, maybe 50 minutes to get through your lesson for the day.  Preparation for that lesson might involve lecture notes, slides or transparencies for projectors, video or audio playback, handouts or worksheets, or even rearrangement of furniture or the setup of special equipment or materials.  When the students enter classroom, if they arrive on time, they have to settle, be counted, and get out their own materials. One of the subtle skills a teacher develops is how to get a quick read on the mood of the group and do a survey of each student should anyone be out of sorts or potentially disruptive or distracted.  Even if you’re good, you still lose the first five minutes of class to “getting started.”  Most teachers will have five to six sections a day, with 20 to 30 students in each section.  Most teachers will have at least a couple of preps, which means you have to prepare lessons for a completely different courses – 10th grade English, maybe, and Journalism.  If you coach a team or lead a student activity, there’s still more prep time.  Most experienced, professional teachers I know arrive about an hour before the start of classes every day.

     Although the school day might end at two or three, many teachers offer extra help, sponsor activities, coach, or simply stay in their classrooms doing whatever paperwork and prep they can manage before the exhaustion of the day creeps in.  The intensity of truly engaged teaching – putting out enough precisely directed energy to engage and manage the learning of scores of young people – is a tremendous rush.  It also takes everything you have, as the weeks and months mount up, to build a little model of each student in your head, and, based on that model, to tailor every encounter so that what you have to offer – content or skills – gets delivered to the student just as he or she needs to receive it.  Most of the time, you will receive very little feedback that you’re really reaching them at all.  But you are, though you don’t know it.  You must be patient, hopeful, full of faith, and diligent.  In a few months, you’ll start getting through.  Many people – including parents and the students themselves – are far too ready to give up.  Sometimes, all young people need is encouragement, but teachers have to pay attention.  Danza is simply too unfocused and tired to make his classroom work the way it needs to.

    After a marathon day in which Danza helped coach at a football game, MCed the mayor's show, and then finished up with a performance in Atlantic City, Hollywood Tony's had enough. It's a sequence of hero-making (or star-worship) which, the longer it continues, the more boring it gets.  The following week, Danza has a man-to-man talk with the head football coach and resigns from his coaching position.  He has to focus on the classroom.  And as for reaching his kids, there's a fine moment that closes the episode as Mr. Danza really is humbled by a hard-to-reach student's account of a fight he got into. "When you're teaching," Mr. Danza says, "you actually have to take into consideration what's going on in their lives."  And to make room for those lives, you have to leave plenty of space in your own.

     Hopefully, now that we're finished with Hollywood Tony's commitment issues, we can get on to the drama of the classroom.  That white-haired Geometry teacher had the right angle on the central problem: You can act like a teacher, or you can teach.

PN Feedburner | PN iTunes | PN Twitter | PN Facebook | PN Video | PN Goodreads

Barcalounge Skipper - The Rebel Black Bears of the University of Mississippi

I'm a bear.  I'm black.  I'm a rebel.  Grrr.  Please help me.
     I'm not sure there was any way for the University of Mississippi to find its way out of this historical mess.  On Friday, in announcing its new athletics mascot, the Rebel Black Bear, the university has made an awkward step forward from an even more awkward past.

     Now, before some of you start getting riled up about a Northerner (I'm from Maine, originally) offering his opinions on what is essentially a Southern matter, allow me to offer some credentials.  I spent a summer at both Southern Miss and the University studying nothing but William Faulkner.  I have eaten barbecue, fried catfish, fried dill pickles, hush puppies, Delta tamales, and I have drunk moonshine purchased out of the trunk of a 1982 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham. I have gotten up in the morning and hit Highway 49.  My wife and her family are all from places in Mississippi named Duck Hill and Coffeeville and Itta Benna.  We spend a good hunk of time in Mississippi every year. In the tradition of the region, both my sons bear the obscure names of long vanished ancestors, a fact will be proud one day to explain to little Thomas Evan Sutpen Faulkner Sutpen Compson Sutpen Quentin Hayes and his older brother Ingram Compson Compson McCaslin Snopes Sutpen Coltrane Thomas Hayes.  My nephew attends the University.  I know a little about The Magnolia State.  For instance, its nickname is The Magnolia State.

Boys, go win one for the Colonel!
     If it wasn't problematic enough, given that the final stages of the Civil Rights Movement happened over fifty years ago, and given that the University itself was a site of one of the worst incidents of resistance for the Old South, the school held on to its previous mascot, Colonel Reb, until 2003. Let me repeat that: Until 2003.  When I looked through the 2010 football roster, I saw a majority of African American players listed, and I'm sure the phenotypical makeup of the team in 2003 was much the same.  The ironies astound me.  Then again, maybe they don't.  If you've read the Battle Royale scenes in Richard Wright or Raplh Ellison, you'll follow my drift. Sometimes, a gentleman lets others do his dirty work for him.  Dirty work, indeed.

    Then there's the matter of the school's nickname, Ole Miss.  Yankees like myself seemed to think that it's a corn-pone version of "Old Mississippi."  But I've had it explained to me that Ole Miss is actually a bit of an inside joke, running along these lines.  Slaves on the plantation used to refer to the white patriarch of the homestead as "Ole Massa," and his wife as "Ole Miss."  So, rather than use the Latin expression for the college you attended, alma mater ("nourishing mother"), students and graduates referred to the University as Ole Miss.  Because, you know, studying was really hard, as hard as it was for slaves on the plantation.  It's a sort of blackface in word-play.  And we all know word play is funny, especially in reference to 300 years of brutalization, economic exploitation, and dispossession.

     Which brings us back to the Rebel Black Bears.  Apparently, there are such bears in Mississippi.  There are also such bears in Maine (I've seen them).  Interestingly enough, the mascot of the University of Maine -- since 1914 or so, is a black bear.  He goes by the name of Bananas.  For me, the lack of originality from Ole Miss is a strike against them.  And, as a native Mainer, I'm offended.  Get your own damn mascot.  Keep your hands of my Bananas!

     Speaking of bananas, there is also the matter of William Faulkner, of course, whose famous story "The Bear," is read and not enjoyed by thousands of high school and college students every year.  The problem here is that, in part, "The Bear" is the centerpiece of a collection entitled Go Down, Moses, in which the main character, Ike McCaslin, in addition to hunting bear, discovers that somewhere in his past there might just be a dash of incest and miscegenation.  Strike two on the sensitivity count, Ole Miss.  That's why you don't read the Cliffs Notes.

     Now, the Rebel Black Bear is, well, black.  So doesn't that count for something?  Yes, but he's also a rebel bear, so, by some sort of adjective algebra, the rebellion and the blackness kind of cancel each other out.  More clumsiness, and that's strike three.  The Rebel Black Bear can come tailgate in his Grove attire, but nobody's going to talk to him.  He's a walking semiotic Frankenstein monster.  Hang your head, Mr. Rebel Black Bear Guy, and get yourself another branch and bourbon.

"I'll take the over on 'Bama!"
     There had been a movement on campus to name as the new mascot none other star Admiral Akbar of Return of the Jedi (Internet meme: "It's a trap!), but last month Lucasfilm declined to release the rights, no matter how much comeback sauce they were paid.  George Lucas has had his own issues with faintly racist characterizations in some of his films (Jar Jar Binks, among others), so this was probably a wise move on both sides. "Count meesa outta dis one!"

PN Feedburner | PN iTunes | PN Twitter | PN Facebook | PN Video | PN Goodreads

Reader's Notes - Periodic Table of Super-Powers

From a few months ago, the Periodic Table of Super-Powers, from Comics Alliance.

PN Feedburner | PN iTunes | PN Twitter | PN Facebook | PN Video | PN Goodreads

PN 133 - Mitch Kaplan of Books and Books

A talk with Mitchell Kaplan, independent bookstore owner and former president of the American Booksellers Association, about a life in the community of reading.

Passing Notes Uncut, the extended version of my conversation with Kaplan, will be available by noon on Saturday -- downloadable through Feedburner and iTunes.

In the meantime, you might surf over to Books and Books or the Miami Book Fair sites.

PN Feedburner | PN iTunes | PN Twitter | PN Facebook | PN Video | PN Goodreads


Reader's Notes - Ridley Scott Meets 'The Man in the High Castle'

One of my all-time favorite science fiction books is from Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle.  Set in a parallel universe where the Axis powers were victorious in World War II, this provocative, intelligent novel absolutely blew me away when I read it in college, so much so that when I had a chance to teach a course in science fiction, it was on my reading list.  The seniors in my class, fresh off their European and US History courses, found the "what if" themes of the novel deeply engaging and wonderful grounds for many thoughtful discussions.  It appears now that no less than Ridley Scott will bring his own sense of style and intensity to this great dystopian novel in a BBC mini-series.

Here's the story from some days ago in the UK Guardian.

PN Feedburner | PN iTunes | PN Twitter | PN Facebook | PN Video | PN Goodreads

PN Video Jukebox - Thelonious Monk

This week, the jukebox has a brief two-part documentary from JazzVideoGuy (Brett Primrack) about Thelonious Monk, and five performances from the mid-sixties.  If you haven't had a chance to check out my review of Robin Kelley's 2009 biography, here's the link.  In the meantime, enjoy the pictures and sounds.

PN Feedburner | PN iTunes | PN Twitter | PN Facebook | PN Video | PN Goodreads


Reader's Notes - Float Magazine

Joan is really this cool.  You try this some time, smart guy.
A quick plug for a former student of mine and a young woman I never had the good fortune to teach -- Joan and Nadia, respectively -- who have started Float, a place for music fans by music fans.  Joan (see the cool pic at left) was impressed several years ago when some of her teachers suggested that yes, if she really wanted to, she could write about things like music and movies and television.  Just be obsessed and keep working at it.  So: remember: Float Magazine.  Why don't you float on over right now?  Here's your challenge: Find the cool picture of Nadia.

PN Feedburner | PN iTunes | PN Twitter | PN Facebook | PN Video | PN Goodreads

Reader's Notes - National Book Award Nominees

To be brief -- Nominees for 2010 awards from the National Book Foundation have been announced.  See the list below, and read more about them at the NBF's website.

Peter Carey, Parrot and Olivier in America (Alfred A. Knopf)
Jaimy Gordon, Lord of Misrule (McPherson & Co.)
Nicole Krauss, Great House (W.W. Norton & Co.)
Lionel Shriver, So Much for That (Harper)
Karen Tei Yamashita, I Hotel (Coffee House Press)

Barbara Demick, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (Spiegel & Grau)
John W. Dower, Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, 9-11, Iraq (W.W. Norton & Co.)
Patti Smith, Just Kids (Ecco)
Justin Spring, Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward(Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Megan K. Stack, Every Man in This Village Is a Liar: An Education in War(Doubleday)

Kathleen Graber, The Eternal City (Princeton University Press)
Terrance Hayes, Lighthead (Viking Penguin)
James Richardson, By the Numbers (Copper Canyon Press)
C.D. Wright, One with Others (Copper Canyon Press)
Monica Youn, Ignatz (Four Way Books)

Young People's Literature
Paolo Bacigalupi, Ship Breaker (Little, Brown & Co.)
Kathryn Erskine, Mockingbird (Philomel Books)
Laura McNeal, Dark Water (Alfred A. Knopf)
Walter Dean Myers, Lockdown (Amistad)
Rita Williams-Garcia, One Crazy Summer (Amistad)

PN Feedburner | PN iTunes | PN Twitter | PN Facebook | PN Video | PN Goodreads

Barcalounge Skipper - 2010 MLB Playoffs - League Championship Series

     Here were my picks for teams advancing all the way through the MLB postseason in the first round, the Division Championship Series.

Reds-Phillies - My pick: Phillies in 4.  Actual result: Phillies in 3.
Braves-Giants - My pick: Giants in 5. Actual result: Giants in 4.
Yankees-Twins - My pick: Yankees in 5. Actual result: Yankees in 3.
Rangers-Rays - My pick: Rays in 4. Actual Result: Rangers in 5.

     Watching last night's Rangers-Rays matchup, it was clear that Texas was prepared to take it to Tampa Bay almost from the first pitch, with Elvis Andrus scoring from second base on a quirky groundout to first base.  Texas scored two more runs on plays where the Rays -- particularly catcher Kelly Shoppach -- were caught flat footed.    Shoppach was booed ferociously by the Trop crowd when, with a runner on second, he popped out to short center in the bottom of the seventh.  All in all, the Rangers just went out and took the game -- and the series.  And Cliff Lee is scary good when he's on his game.
     My predictions worked out pretty well for the most part -- three out of four series.  I learned that the Phillies might just hop on Roy Halladay's back and ride all the way to the championship.  Doc pitched a perfect game in the regular season and only the second no-hitter in the postseason.  I don't think the Giants are going to derail that train.  As for the American League, with the unfocused Rays and the spooked Twins out of the running, it appears that the Yankees and the Rangers are pretty well matched.  If CJ Wilson and Cliff Lee keep pitching the way they have, and, more importantly, if Josh Hamilton finds his groove, I think the Rangers can give the Yankees a run for the money.  But there's no do-overs in the prognostication business, so I'm still going with the Phillies all the way to the ring.

PN Feedburner | PN iTunes | PN Twitter | PN Facebook | PN Video | PN Goodreads


Listener's Notes - Miami Jazz Cooperative

Let me take Tuesday's space to promote the Miami Jazz Cooperative, an organization of musicians, educators, and jazz enthusiasts in the Magic City who have a very clear mission of promoting the music.  More specifically, the mission of the MJC is "to establish and operate a dedicated jazz facility in Miami for the mutual benefit of jazz students, jazz musicians, and their audience. To this end, the MJC is committed to supporting the appreciation of jazz in the South Florida community through education and outreach."
   You can read more about the mission, community, and organizational structure of the MJC at its website, http://www.miamijazz.org/.  You can also follow the MJC on Twitter and Facebook.  Many thanks to Frank "The Walking Encyclopedia of Popular Music" Consola from WDNA for first letting me know about this great organization.

PN Feedburner | PN iTunes | PN Twitter | PN Facebook | PN Video | PN Goodreads


Listener's Notes - From the CD Stack: Bad Plus, Jazz Folk, Monheit, Degibri, Lee

     We pull a few more CD's than usual from the stack this week, just because material has been piling up as a result of the excellent response to the reboot/return of Passing Notes.  Many days, the mailbox is full, and there's much music to listen to and many books to read.  I will almost always try to write a little -- if not a lot -- about the things I like, and leave the uninteresting stuff (mostly) to silence.

     Maybe the novelty of their sound has worn off a little, but the latest release from The Bad Plus, Never Stop left me frustrated at times, as much as I enjoyed hearing new tunes from the progressive group.  Something seemed unfamiliar about this CD.  In fact, all the tunes on the album are Bad Plus originals, so Never Stop marks a departure from the band's tried and true formula.  What is lost -- those memorably clever, hook-driven covers ("Smells Like Teen Spirit," "Iron Man," "Tom Sawyer") -- no longer overshadow the interesting writing the group had been doing all along. And those who asked that seemingly all-important genre question (Is it jazz-rock or rock-jazz?) can now simply understand that The Bad Plus is a piano trio that plays damn fascinating music of their own design.  Highlights of Never Stop are the tumbling, crashing opener, "The Radio Tower Has a Beating Heart," which closes with a lovely, infectious groove, and "You Are," a dramatic, evolving piece that offers surprises every sixteen bars.  Never stop moving forward, indeed.

     For listeners who might want something of a throwback to the old Bad Plus -- and then some -- there's this release from Jazz Folk, Jazz in the Stone Age.  Recorded and packaged in a decidedly low-tech idiom, bassist Peter Scherr, drummer Simon Barker, and pianist Matt McMahon pound out a pleasant mix of covers from Taj Mahal, Lou Reed, Joni Mitchell, Hunter/Garcia, and Beck.  Recorded, mixed, and with liner notes from Scherr all the way from Hong Kong.  Jazz Folk manage, on each song, to pick a particular texture and stay with it, whether it's blues ("Corinna"), jazz ("That Song About the Midway"), or ballads ("To Lay Me Down").  The most remarkable tunes are a version of Reed's "All Tomorrow's Parties," which quickly rises to a loud, driving march and never lets up and the closer, a cover of Beck's "Cold Brains," clattering up from the world of lo-fi, widens into some lovely overdriven piano work, and then disassembles itself.  There's a vision to this release that I see more and more clearly each time I listen.  I'm going back to the stone age, and I think I like it there.  They have good jazz.

     For the more refined and (perhaps) better groomed among us, the new album from Jane Monheit, Home, is a delightful, comfortable collection of jazz standards from the likes of Rodgers & Hart, Schwartz & Deitz, and other notable pairs of names joined by an ampersand.  Perhaps the album could have been called Jane Monheit: Ampersand.  All cleverness aside, this is a great album of slightly off-the-beaten-path standards featuring Monheit's charming, lush voice backed by her usual expert band and a superb guest cast (Pizarelli, Vignola, Magnarelli, among others -- Ciao!).  Particularly appealing is the menacingly sexy "Everything I've Got Belongs To You," and the album's opener, "Shine On Your Shoes," which will encourage much skipping and swinging on lampposts.  Irresistible.  You'll want to take Jane and her new CD home in your pocket to meet the folks.

Anzic records took great care to surround saxophonist Eli Degibri with a first-rate ensemble on Israeli Song. Both drummer Al Foster and bassist Ron Carter have mentored Degibri over the years, and pianist Brad Mehldau commands almost as much respect for his intellect and writing as he does for his musicianship.  Degibri is a wonderful saxophonist who has worked with first rate groups all over the world since graduating from Berklee and the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz and going directly into Herbie Hancock's group.  Every song on the album is balanced and thoughtfully played, and although Mehldau seems at times like he might overwhelm the proceedings, Degibri shifts gears often and with enough confidence and presence to stay in command the whole time.  I enjoyed most of all a wonderful duet between Degibri and Carter on "Somewhere Over The Rainbow," where the tenor holds back to let his former teacher's amazing playing share the song.  The title song, a soaring duet with Mehldau, in the end has the reed player and the keyboardist on equal footing.  In the end, Israeli Song sounds very much like the work of a mature musician among equals.

Finishing up the listening for this week is a notable set of compositions from bassist Scott Lee: Leaving.  Playing with old friends Billy Drewes on on reeds, Jeff Hirshfield on drums, and Gary Versace on piano, Lee's group's approach to improvising on his tunes goes a bit beyond the eight-bars-at-a-time approach.  Instead, they might lock in to a few bars in a song for an extended vamp, or the drummer might choose to change time signatures within a solo.  At the start, Lee's compositions start in familiar places, but travel in unexpected directions, although the band's been playing together for so long that they never seem to go too far out of earshot.  The best example of this occurs on "Old Friends Talking," which is an entirely free improvisation between Lee and Drewes, and makes for a simply lovely exploration of the full range of tones and effects from their respective instruments.

PN Feedburner | PN iTunes | PN Twitter | PN Facebook | PN Video | PN Goodreads


Grooming Notes - It Goes To 11 and Has Electrolytes

The hair's getting long and unruly again. My wife came back from the store today having purchased a giant tube of hair gel, and she enjoyed making fun of the label.  We note several features:

  • Not satisfied with 10, this gel goes to 11.
  • It is activity-proof , which is fortunate, because it is apparently marketed to marathoners, who, as I seem to remember, are somewhat active at times, and, surprisingly, fret the entire race about the state of their hair.
  • It's got electrolytes, which hair needs.
  • The bubbles in the gel don't move when you shake the container. This is the kind of control I need.
  • If you look at the clock in the background of the label, the gel may actually last only nine minutes. Nobody has ever run a marathon in nine minutes, although some have come close.  But their legs exploded.

PN Feedburner | PN iTunes | PN Twitter | PN Facebook | PN Video | PN Goodreads

Eater's Notes - Mobile Cravings

Got a taste for authentic street food? My friend and fellow foodee Carl (AKA James C. Corn, motto: "He doesn't care") posted this amazing website that somehow takes advantage of API stuff (don't ask me how it works) to let you know if there's a food truck, lunch wagon, sandwich cart, roach coach, call it what you will in your part of town.  Always seem to be missing that guy with the churros who comes by the corner by your office only on certain mornings.  You know, Churro Guy!  But you never seem to know when he's going to be there?  A website called Mobile Cravings will take care of that for you.  Just don't run out into the street too fast. Happy eating.

PN Feedburner | PN iTunes | PN Twitter | PN Facebook | PN Video | PN Goodreads