Friday, May 19, 2017

Johnny's Cash & Charley's Pride: Peter Cooper's stories of Music City Legends

One of my biggest challenges in keeping up posts on what I'm reading is that sometimes the book I have just finished insists on jumping to the front of the line. I had a busy reading month in April, and I have several books I still plan to introduce here. This week, though, I went to Parnassus Books to hear Peter Cooper read from his new book Johnny's Cash & Charley's Pride.

Cooper was the music writer for the Tennessean for a long time, which gave him the opportunity to meet and interview so  many legends of country music.  He's also a singer-songwriter and, as I learned this week, he's quite a storyteller.

Of course, the book covers the best known figures of country music--Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Merle Haggard--but he also shares great stories about "Cowboy" Jack Clement, Don Light, Jimmy Martin, and even Ann Soyars, who took up money at the door of the Station Inn for years.  Best of all, he gives a glimpse into the way the lives of the famous and not-yet-famous intertwined with those who were not famous at all. 

This is one of those rare books that sets the synapses jumping in my brain, reminding me of my own stories and of the music that's been playing since I was sixteen, maybe younger. After the book event, I started building a playlist, and as I read, it grew and grew--favorite songs, great music I hadn't discovered yet, some music I have in vinyl but not in any more updated format. I'm listening to Loretta Lynn and Waylon Jennings, Lee Ann Womack, and Irene Kelly, Chris Stapleton, and of course Kris Kristofferson.

Now that I've sped through the book, I can't decide whether to share it with a friend first or to start back over and read through one more time. It's that much fun.


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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Books That Make Me Think about Resolution: Andrew's Brain and Today Will Be Different

 I don't have to have my literature with tidy endings, though I do love an author who can end a book in a way that satisfies, even when it surprises. Sometimes though, in literature as in life, the endings are more complicated. Two of my most recent reads have been almost unsettling in that way that keeps me thinking about them. Nevertheless, they bear almost no similarities otherwise.

Maria Semple, who wrote Where'd You Go, Bernadette? has followed with a "one day in the life" story of Eleanor Flood, a wife and mother beginning her day making a commitment to be a better person. She's called away from her private poetry lesson when her son complains of illness--again--to the school nurse. She and her son Timby discover that her husband, whom she saw holding his head at the breakfast table, is not only not in his office but that he
has told his employees he's on a week vacation. Suspecting the worst, she and Timby engage in a series of adventures across the city. Flashbacks and stream-of-consciousness inform readers of her career writing for a popular television series, her far-too-prolonged book deal, and her estrangement from her sister, the other "Flood Girl." At times, Semple shifts to husband's Joe's point-of-view as well.

At story's end, after much "madcap adventure," she discovers (spoiler alert) that her husband--a former Catholic and avowed atheist--has become part of a Christian congregation after the team chaplain on the sidelines where he serves as orthopedist on call begins to help him address personal problems. While at book's end Eleanor and Timby seem eager to join Joe as he goes to seminary in Scotland, she doesn't seem to make any kind of peace with his conversion. In fact, she says he has gone from being the most interesting person she knows to the most boring. That seemed problematic at least to this reader.

In Andrew's Brain, the last novel by the late E. L. Doctorow, the entire narrative is revealed as the title character engages in a dialogue with someone he refers to only as "Doc." Through these conversations, the details of his life are teased out: After his failed marriage to Martha, following the death of their only child, he ends up appearing on Martha's doorstep bereft, holding the infant child of his second wife Briony, his much younger former student, who has apparently died. (This is not a spoiler. That much is revealed early. The full story emerges only in bits and pieces.) While Andrew may not be a totally unreliable narrator, his tendency to withhold details, even entire incidents, until he feel the time is right, keeps readers guessing before he delivers one-two punches.

I kept thinking of a favorite old Young Adult novel by Robert Cormier, I Am the Cheese, also a tricky little tale told in much the same fashion, but with an ending that sent me immediately back to chapter one. Andrew is complicated but engaging, and his observations about people in his life are intriguing. Everything about him, though, is revealed indirectly. (As Emily Dickinson suggests, "Tell the truth but tell it slant.").

Both of these books kept me interested but left me a bit unsettled, thinking about them long after I came to the conclusion. Maybe that's not such a bad reading experience.

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Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Fall of Lisa Bellow: A Novel by Susan Perabo

Some books fall so clearly into the Young Adult category, and others are unquestionably adult novels. In her new novel The Fall of Lisa Bellow, Susan Perabo manages to reach both audiences with can best be called a family story--and a page turner at that. Her main character, Meredith Oliver, is an eighth grade girl whose older brother Evan lost the sight in one eye--and his baseball prospects--with one bad baseball pitch during batting practice. Their parents are doing their best to maintain normalcy, even insisting on keeping up their breakfast ritual of setting goals for the day.

Meredith deals with typical middle school angst, finding herself and her two best friends in the middle tier of popularity comparing themselves to the popular girls, with the eighth grade queen bee Lisa Bellow.

On the day of a math test, when Meredith stops by the local sandwich shop after school to reward herself with a root beer, Lisa Bellow is there too. A man enters wearing a face mask and a long hoodie to rob the store, and Meredith finds herself lying on the floor face to face with Lisa. The man's apparent split second decision to make Lisa leave with him sets Meredith's world on a tilt.

Perabo balances Meredith's story with the perspective of her mother. Claire Oliver and Meredith's father Mark are dentists in practice together. Over the course of their marriage, Claire has confessed both large and small errors of judgment that Mark took more seriously than she expected him to do. Both of them, however, are baffled by how to treat their daughter who wasn't kidnapped, as she eventually returns to school with the awkward distinction of being the last person to see Lisa alive.

Lisa Bellow's friends and her mother reach out to Meredith, and she moves into their inner circle, distancing herself from her two best friends, but she doesn't tell anyone that she imagines she can see what's going on in the apartment where Lisa is being kept.

The story itself is gripping, and Perabo using some particularly clever narrative twists to keep readers guessing about what is real and what is imagination. She presents a believable depiction of middle school and of family life in the midst of trauma--in the case of the Olivers, the double trauma of Evan's injury and Meredith's close call and the aftermath.

Perabo's characters are flawed, complex, but sympathetic. Readers can't help pitying Miss Bellow, Lisa's single mother, while still wanting Meredith to be safe from the pressure from outsiders as a result of the ordeal. Even with unanswered questions, Perabo leaves her audience--no matter what age--hoping for a family to be healed.



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Friday, March 24, 2017

News of the World: Paulette Jiles

Since I'm in two book clubs, I often read books from someone else's list. It's worth it to me to be part of a community of readers, even if my reading selections are not solely my own. In fact, I make some wonderful discoveries that way. This week has been one of those serendipitous reading experiences as I read Paulette Jiles' newest novel News of the World. When I stopped in Parnassus to browse titles, one of my favorite bookstore employees Nathan told me that this had been the favorite of one of the publishing company representatives who had spent some time working with them in the store.

Since most of my reading started late at night, I got off to a slow start with this one, but then suddenly Jiles had me hooked, and I found myself reading late into the night, knowing my alarm would be sounding at 5:30 a.m.

The protagonist Captain Kidd is a Civil War veteran, now in his seventies, living in a quite uncivilized Texas, where the political division reminds me of--writes and encourages them to join him. Circumstances have also forced him to close his printing business, so he makes a paltry living going from small town to small town, renting a hall, and reading selections from newspapers around the world, charging a dime a listener.

As the story opens, he's approached by a freighter who has a ten-year-old white girl who was kidnapped four years before by the Kiowa who killed her family. She's been ransomed, but the freighter, a black man, knows he can't risk traveling with the girl to her German aunt and uncle, so he convinces Kidd to return the girl.
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Jiles takes the reader along town after town as Kidd, whom the girl calls "Kep-dun" faces double challenges: finding a way to communicate with the girl he calls Johanna and avoiding the threat of Indians and outlaws along their route. The girl, who considers herself Kiowa, fights his attempts to civilize her, but the two warm to one another during their forced time together.

Over the course of the narrative, Jiles develops these two characters and the mixed bag of good and bad folk they encounter without hokey tricks or stereotypes. The setting is described so clearly, I felt as though I had traveled all the way from Wichita Falls to the girl's first home. 

Even the author's notes at the end sent me turning back through the book, retracing my steps--and those of the "Kep-dun" and "Cho-henna"--back and forth across Texas. I have my book club to thank for the delightful journey.

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Wednesday, March 22, 2017

My YA Fix: The Sun Is Also a Star

    I have long been an unapologetic Young Adult fiction fan. When I taught high school, I found it helpful to know what my students might be interested in reading--and then to keep a good supply on the shelves in my classroom. To be honest, though, I mainly read them because I enjoy them. Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak, E. Lockhart's We Were Liars, lots of books by Robert Cormier, Paul Zindel, Paula Danziger crossed my field of vision, particularly since I heard them read at NCTE conferences over the years.

    Nicola Yoon's new novel The Sun Is Also a Star caught my attention in time to take the audiobook on a recent road trip. Binge listening worked perfectly, since the book itself takes place, except for the epilogue, in less than a twenty-four-hour period.  Yoon--or Fate--throws together two characters on a particular significant day.  Natasha is a Jamaican immigrant in her high school senior year when her father's DUI brings the family's undocumented status to the attention of authorities, and they are going to be deported that evening. Natasha is determined to find some way to stop the deportation.

   Daniel is a first-generation Korean, the second son on his way to an admissions interview for Yale, which his parents consider the "second-best college." After living in the shadow of his older brother--who has recently had to leave Harvard, Daniel isn't so sure he wants to follow his parents' plan for his life to go to medical school.

  Daniel wants to be--is--a poet; Natasha, on the other hand, wants to pursue science, looking at everything from a pragmatic, logic-centered perspective. A series of coincidences bring them together as they collide on their way to their two destinations, Natasha to a lawyer purported to be the best at fighting Deportation, Daniel on his way to the interview--with the same man.

  They end up moving through New York City together, with stops at the Black Hair Products store run by  Daniel's father and Natasha's apartment, where her family is packing to leave.

  Yoon weaves in chapters from other characters, giving the back story, for example, to the security guard at the Immigration office, the lawyer both are meeting, a taxi driver, and Natasha's father, a frustrated actor who feels his family responsibility has ruined his chances at his dream career.

  No lightweight romance, the story had me genuinely caring about the two protagonists and their families--and even the minor characters that cross their paths. Soon touches on all kinds of current topics with a light hand, rendering the characters three dimensional instead of stereotypes.

  One clever thread through the story is the article I had read earlier in the New York Times reporting research claiming people could fall in love by answering a series of questions and looking deeply into one another's eyes for four minutes. Whether the questions themselves made Natasha fall in love with Daniel or not, I found myself loving them both.


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Friday, March 17, 2017

A Gentleman in Moscow: My Favorite Recommendation

It's not unusual for me to start encouraging others to read a book before I'm even finished reading it. Some books just seem perfect for  my reading friends. When I started Amor Towles' latest novel A Gentleman in Moscow, I felt that way--but even more so. I was ready to recommend it to my book club based on just a few chapters. I called my mother and told her to read it. Meanwhile, I kept reading, and I was not disappointed. This book is probably my favorite in awhile, which  is particularly significant because it's not dark, disturbing, or esoteric. It's not one of those books that some people just won't get.

The book opens during the Bolshevik Revolution as Count Alexander Rostov is called before a tribunal for the simple crime of being an aristocrat. Either despite or because of the measure of fame he's achieved through poetry, his judges decide that instead of putting him before a firing squad, they will sentence him to house arrest at Moscow's Metropol Hotel. The Count has already been living there for awhile, but he is moved out of his suite and forced to "downsize"--settling into a small attic room. Towels presents the details so clearly over the course of the tale, I imagine I've visited the Count's room.

During the course of his stay--the novel covers at least thirty years--he encounters delightful characters among the guests and the staff of the hotel, some ambiguous, and some straight-out antagonists. He first meets Nina, a young girl staying with her family at the Metropol who asks him about "rules for princesses." He also befriends the wait staff at the finest restaurant in the hotel--and then joins them.

Nashville novelist Ann Patchett has admitted that she just writes the same book over and over: a group of people, nothing alike, are thrown together. Towles has tales the formula and perfected it. Readers will hate "the Bishop," an inept waiter who, via the Peter Principle, manages to climb the management ladder at the Metropol. They will find delightful Anna Urbanova, the Soviet actress with her dubious back story, will  fall in love with Sofia, whom the Count raises as his daughter, and they will be amused by the Russian who comes to Rostov to be tutored in languages and culture, but ends up Brando watching films, particularly Casablanca. 

From his limited point of view, Count Rostov has a window view on Moscow--and the world. His knowledge of food, wine, and music is eclipsed by his understanding of human nature. Towles has produced a multi-layer narrative that does much more than charm the reader. The author also gives just enough of Alexander's past, especially the story of his sister's death, to give even more insight into the man.

For now, I anticipate happily the opportunity to discuss the book with others--and then to pick it up and read it one more time.
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Friday, February 17, 2017

Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing

Back in the fall, when I attended Nashville's Southern Festival of the Book, I came home with a long reading list and a number of actual books. I managed to hear Yaa Gyasi twice, once sitting on the row with her proud family. The book, written when she was twenty-two, resulted from a trip to Africa to see where her family had originated. (Gyasi actually grew up in Huntsville, Alabama.)

The novel she ended up writing wasn't the story she expected to find on her travels, but she put together a beautiful, masterfully told story set on the Gold Coast of Africa that begins with two daughters of the same mother, each unaware of the other's existence. One is taken as the wife of a white slave trader, living in the castle on the coast under which captive tribes people are held until placed on ships for passage to America. The other becomes a slave.

Rather than tell the full story of her characters, Gyasi gives just enough to make her characters real before moving to the next generations. She gives a picture of the tribal rivalry, spurred on by European slave traders. While history books sometimes imply the role African tribes play in the captivity of their rivals, the novel gives a clearer, fairer explanation of this complicated chapter in history.

Gyasi brings the characters all the way up to modern times, even bringing together a couple who will never be aware of their connection, many generations removed.

Much as Colton Whitehead managed to do in The Underground Railroad, Yaa Gyasi manages to put real faces on the characters set in this historical backdrop. Her characters are multi-dimensional, their flaws laid bare along with their virtues. In the end, readers close the pages of the book with a large cast of believable, sympathetic characters taking up residence in our long-term memory.
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