Monday, June 18, 2018

A Murder in Music City by Michael Bishop

On television, at any given time, I can find plenty of those whodunnit true crime stories. Last week, though, at the Author! Author! even at Brentwood Country Club, a benefit for the Adult Learning Center of Williamson County, I was introduced to Michael Bishop's book A Murder in Music City.  He joined the panel with Peggy O'Neal Peden and Joy Jordan-Lake. I'd met Joy earlier at Parnassus and loved her novel A Tangled Mercy, set in Charleston, and I'd heard of Peden's book because of her Lipscomb connections. I knew almost nothing about Bishop or his story, but I was intrigued.

When I had him sign the book, he offered a friendly warning: When you start reading, make sure you have time to read straight through. I attributed the comment to hyperbole or ego, but I'll confess that I read several chapters in the middle of the night sitting on the bathroom floor of the guest room where we were visiting.

Although Bishop had no law enforcement experience, legal expertise, or journalism background, he became interested in the story of the murder of Paula Herring in February of 1964 after hearing about a number of unsolved or questionable Nashville crimes.  Herring's murder was one of the first after Nashville and Davidson County merged to form the nation's first Metro government. Home from college during her freshman year at UT, she was babysitting her young brother while her mother was out on the town. The murder occurred in the Crieve Hall area (just a few blocks from my daughter and son-in-law's first home) during a time when other crimes were reported in the area. One of the most suspicious details was the young brother's presence in the house. He was not harmed, and he seemed not to have heard any gunshots.

John Randolph Clarke was arrested, charged, and convicted of the crime after a five-day trial in Jackson, Tennessee, where the case was moved because of the publicity in Nashville. Despite Clarke's reputation as a philanderer, his lawyer and his wife never believed he was guilty.

Bishop tells the story through his own search for evidence, research that took him about fifteen years. He repeatedly hit dead ends as neighbors, friends, and potential witnesses said they weren't interested in talking or reliving the crime. The timing of the murder and the research required Bishop to dig through archives and to search through old phone directories and records. Along the way, he learned a lot about the psychology of the interview and about body language.

Nashville residents, especially those who were in the city during the early years of Metro, will find the names and places mentioned familiar. Much of the action takes place around Vanderbilt, particularly the stretch of road between Rotier's and Elliston Soda Shop. At the luncheon, Bishop joked about having to watch his back.  The more I read, the more I understood the fear. He names names--high level government and law enforcement officials (some with streets named for them).

The details of the Jackson trial--and the party atmosphere at the hotel where defense, prosecution, jury and media stayed--would be hard to believe in a work of fiction. By the time Bishop brings the truth to life, most of the players and long dead. In fact, only Paula's brother Alan survives. The colorful characters on the good and bad sides of the story, some involved with other high profile crimes around the United States, make for a fascinating read. Yes, it's one that might keep you up at night reading through to the end.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Killers of the Flower Moon

Today I'm full. My book club met at my house to discuss David Grann's nonfiction book Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI. In this book club, we try to serve food to fit the book. (We decided no more books about prison because bread and water make for boring book club meals.) I tried to do my research, so we had bison patties, "three sisters" salad with beans, corn, and squash, wild rice and cranberries, and fry bread with wojapi (blueberry gravy). 

With this group of readers, though, the food (or the drink) isn't the main point. We have spirited discussions of the books each month. The big question we all addressed this time was "Why didn't we know about this?"  David Grann used journalistic research to tell the story of outright murder and suspicious deaths among members of the Osage tribe in the 1920s. At the time, members of the tribe had great wealth because of "head rights" for oil on their property. Many of them lived ostentatiously with big cars, fine houses, and other extravagance.  

Grann begins with the death of Anna Brown and follows the subsequent life of her sister Molly Burkhart, married to a white man. In addition to Brown's brutal murder and other similar cases, more and more members of the community were dying from what appeared to be poison. 

Tom White, one of the early agents of the FBI and a former Texas Ranger, is brought to the investigation after a great deal of bungling, handpicked evidently by J. Edgar Hoover. At this time, the bureau was relatively new. Americans had been resistant to anything that appeared to be a national police force, but some crimes had a federal nature requiring law enforcement with a larger jurisdiction. What White uncovers is an extensive network of greed and murder for gain. 

When the Osage came into the fortune, the powers that be didn't deem them capable of handling the financial responsibility and assigned guardians--white men in the community. While some acted in the best interest of their wards, the evidence is clear that far too many acted systematically to deprive them of their wealth and their lives. Since the perpetrators were highly placed members of the community, they were able to cover up the crime during the pretense of investigating. While some served time, many walked free.

In the last chapters of the book, Grann tells his own story of digging deeper into records decades after the crimes were laid to rest. He found the records of guardianships with a disproportionate number of wards listed as "dead."

While this story has unique characteristics, it's far too similar to other wrongdoing that has occurred throughout history--and still occurs--when one group is able to see another as inferior, even less than human. 

Grann writes that "history is a merciless judge"; in the telling of this story, he helps citizens to be more aware. And as G. I. Joe always said, "Knowing is half the battle."


Monday, June 11, 2018

The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish

I am thankful for the highlighting function on iBooks.  I'm a reader who marks in her books. While I keep some books relatively pristine (Is that modifier possible?), I do tend to make notes as I read. I am more hindered in reading by the lack of a pencil or pen than by the inability to locate any of the dozen pair of readers I keep lying around.

Most recently, I had Rachel Kadish's novel The Weight of Ink loaded on my iPad for a road trip. I had started the first chapter earlier and then had been distracted, moving to another book (probably one assigned by a book club). When I started again, though, I couldn't stop reading.

The book opens around 2000 in Richmond (outside of London), where Helen Watt, a history professor has been summoned by a former student she barely remembers. He and his wife are remodeling or restoring a home she inherited from an aunt or grandmother when an electrician discovers what he thinks are Arabic writings under the stairs, stopping construction. Closer inspection indicates these papers are written in Hebrew and date back to the seventeenth century.  Watt is on the brink of retirement and experiencing some serious health problems she keeps private. Her department chair recommends Aaron Levy, a brash American student stalled in his dissertation work, to help her. When her university purchases the treasure trove of letters and documents, she and Aaron must the clock, under the watch of the library's "two Patricias," as other scholars are allowed access as well.

The second thread of the story follows Ester Velasquez, a young girl sent to London after her parents' death by fire. She ends up in the home of a rabbi blinded for his faith during the Inquisition in Portugal. During the time of novel, Jews have just been permitted in England again the during Restoration Period when Charles II regains the throne. While the rabbi has a few reluctant male pupils, Ester shows a unique ability and interest, becoming his scribe, going again, at the very least, convention.

Kadish's narrative in the seventeenth century covers conflicts and divisions within the Jewish community and between the Jews and Gentiles in London, the plague, and the Great Fire of London. In the 21st century sections, the author also weaves back stories of romance for Helen and for Aaron. All the characters wrestle with faith, scripture, identity, loyalty, and person values.

My initial reading also convinced me how rich a close study of the book would be: Kadish weaves symbolism of ink and ash with martyrdom and the Masada. While her major characters are fictional, her afterword assures readers that she carefully researched the periods in question. She even reveals a couple of instances in which she took minor poetic license to shift facts.

The book presents three particularly strong female characters and a number of men and women of integrity conscious of their own flaws in search of truth. When I go back to my notes and bookmarks, I'm due a some searching of my own.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine: Yes, Indeed She Is.

I love to be surprised by a book. It happened with Fredrick Backman's  A Man Called Ove; one of my favorite librarians told me, "I've put this book on hold for you." When I first started it, as I was introduced to the old curmudgeon, I was baffled. But he grew on me.

I picked up Olive Kitteredge by Elizabeth Strout on a hunch with no information about it at all. Over the course of the interwoven short stories, I learned to love Olive.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman was on my list of books to read--but for the life of me I can't remember how it got there. Sure enough, dear odd Eleanor was not easy to like at first. She was socially awkward and she lacked a filter, so she quickly spoke her mind, alienating her from her co-workers. But over the course of the story, Eleanor seemed to get to know herself better as I learned more about her.

As Honeyman reveals, Eleanor has good reasons for her awkwardness and mistrust of others, revealed gradually in the story. When the new IT guy, Raymond, initiates a friendship with nothing but good intentions, he also helps her good side to emerge.  Early in the novel, Eleanor reveals that she's found the man of her dreams, a local pop singer she's heard once and never met.  she begins a self-improvement course.  Meanwhile, her interaction with Raymond leaves the two of them as partners in heroism when they witness a man having a heart attack. Raymond invites Eleanor to visit Sammy in hospital, leading to other invitations from his family to cookouts and birthday celebrations.

Most poignant, readers realize that Eleanor bears burn scars from an incident in her childhood to which she only vaguely refers. She also has to deal with her dysfunctional relationship with her mother, a particularly cruel woman with a hold over Eleanor.

As Eleanor faces depression, disappointment, and self-doubt, readers can't help cheering her on all the way. The real hero of the story, though, is the unkempt, lovable Raymond. We'd all be better off with a Raymond in our lives, someone who ignores the worst in us, expects the best, and follows through on his good intentions. In fact, more of us should be Raymond to others around us. Gail Honeyman manages to craft a lovely story about the least likely of protagonists without the least bit of sermonizing. I just wish I knew whom to thank for the recommendation.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Anatomy of a Miracle

Right about the time I heard Jonathan (Johnny) Miles at Parnassus in the spring, my preacher sent an email asking for accounts of actual miracles. I expect the answers to find their way into a sermon soon.

In this novel--and rest assured, despite the subtitle (The *True Story of a Paralyzed Veteran, a Mississippi Convenience Store, A Vatican Investigation, and the Spectacular Perils of Grace) and the Afterword and Acknowledgements, the book is (as the asterisk relates) a novel--paraplegic veteran Cameron Harris, after four years in a wheelchair, stands in the parking lot of the Vietnamese owned Biz-E-Bee convenience store and walks.

His doctor Janice Lorimar-Cuevas rejects the concept of a miraculous healing but cannot find a scientific explanation. Scott T. Griffin comes from Los Angeles to create a reality television show out of the whole circus. The Vatican sends an investigator, since at least one parishioner had asked prayers of a priest one miracle short of sainthood. Social media explodes.

Without taking sides or even attempting to solve the mystery, Miles cleverly presents the tensions that  occur in the wake of Cameron's inexplicable miracle.  A man dying of cancer walks from Alabama with a blow-up crux and takes his place in the parking lot, waiting for a miracle of his own. The couple who own the convenience store, who have been reluctant to open incoming mail because of debt, find themselves doing a brisk business in relics and miracle kitsch.

Cameron's sister Tanya, who has cared for him long before his injury, when their mother died in a car wreck, long after they had been abandoned by their father, is pushed into the role of comic relief in the television series in progress. They siblings are both given new cars, new clothes, and more directing in their personal lives that they can bear.

Because the story switches points of view, the writing style also shifts. The account of Cameron's experiences in his time prior to the explosion that paralyzes him is some of the most vivid writing I've read about this particular war, rivaling some of the best writing about Vietnam, in my experience.

The section involving Dr. Lorimar-Cuevas' father, a successful writer, is another gem in the book, as he explains how story is most important.

The story takes interesting and complicated twists and turns as Cameron's character and history develop. As Miles keeps up the suggestion of a true story, he allows readers to explore all the different What if? angles that Cameron's recovery presents.

Like the characters, I'm not sure about Cameron's miracle--but I'm ready to be drawn into the conversation.


Monday, May 28, 2018

Rick Bragg and Lee Smith: Southern Journeys.

Rick Bragg's  recent appearance at Nashville Public Library to discuss his newest book The Best Cook in the World prompted me to load his older book My Southern Journey  in my CD player for a weekend road trip. I can't keep my own copies of Ava's Man and All Over but the Shoutin' because I keep sharing them with anyone asking for book suggestions. Even people who aren't familiar with his books know him for the last page of each issue of Southern Living. This book is a collection of his essays that have appeared in this and other publications.

Bragg comes across as a what you see is what you get kind of Southern man--opinionated and direct. Much of his humor is at his own expense, but he also manages to balance the humor with genuine sentiment. In this book, he touches on all the areas of life, especially Southern life--food, dogs, family, and football.

As an Alabama native myself, listening to Bragg's stories kept ringing all the bells and pushing all my buttons. His opinions on food and how it should and should not be served paralleled my own. His memories of Paul "Bear" Bryant (so good they named an animal after him") were so genuine and tender, I almost had to pull the car to the side of the road. Yep. Roll Tide. But rather than simply parroting the same tired old cheers, he also discussed some pivotal changes in race relations in SEC football.

When Bragg talked about the 2010 tornadoes that tore through Tuscaloosa, I recalled not just the news coverage, but the visual details provided by my niece and nephew, students at the time who were touched by the damage and by the human toll. Bragg recalled how people came together for the recovery; I remembered my nephew Jeff and his friends whose graduation was cancelled but who remained behind, helping to search for bodies and survivors, preparing and delivering food to residents and rescue and clean-up workers. They too saw not only the horror of a natural disaster but the dignity and compassion in the wake.

Without intentionally planting myself in the literary South, I next picked up Lee Smith's novel The Last Girls, which has been sitting on my shelf for awhile. I never know what prompts me to read a particular book at any given time, but I'm often surprised by the parallels. This book follows two journeys made by friends at a Southern women's college, one on a raft down the Mississippi River during their college years, another years later on a riverboat following the same path.

One of the key characters Harriet Holding is a teacher who now works with adults. She has never married, but her recollections of her own unusual childhood help to explain her resistance to intimacy. Courtney Hurt is successfully but unhappily married. On this trip she is torn between loyalty to her husband, now showing some signs of early dementia, and her lover who is pushing for commitment. Anna Todd, a successful romance novelist, uses the trip to write the next in her series of  novels, each set in a different Southern state. She romanticizes the young man who handles her luggage and straightens her room, inserting him into the novel, but she is slower to reveal her own back story to readers, one she never reveals to her old school friends. Catherine Wilson is the only member of the group bringing her husband along on this reunion trip. After escaping two unhappy marriages, she's now feeling uncertain about this one. These two live in Tuscaloosa. Smith gives the husband a chance to tell his side of the story, including their Tuscaloosa tornado experience, allowing readers a chance to hope for a happy ending.

The character absent only in a physical sense from the story is "Baby" Ballou. The one of the college friends who lived dangerously, she had ironically been paired as a roommate with Harriet, forging an unlikely sisterhood and giving Harriet the chance to live vicariously through Baby. Now the "girls" are charged with leaving some of Baby's ashes in the Mississippi River before they reach New Orleans at their journey's end.

Smith's title comes from the realization that these were the last females called "girls" with impunity. Nowadays, they note, they'd be called young women. They recognize they are living on a cusp. The novel leaves them without carefully tied up stories. Instead, readers are able to imagine what might come next for women who have a lot of living left to do.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Charles Frazier Returns to the Civil War Period

Charles Frazier's first novel Cold Mountain is on my short list of favorite books. I read it the week it debuted on the recommendation of Donald Secreast during his appearance at the Writers Symposium at Caldwell Community College in 1997. I went on to teach the book in my senior English APP and AP classes, even taking a couple of groups to find and climb the real Cold Mountain after we finished reading.

I loved Thirteen Moons as well, so when I heard he had a new book set--at least in part--in the Civil War South, telling the story of Varina Davis, wife of Confederate president Jefferson Davis, I ordered the copy from Parnassus Books before its release. When I picked it up, I was even happier to learn Frazier would be coming to Nashville for the library's Salon@615. He appeared with Paula McLain, who is promoting her new novel Love and Ruins (next on my reading list), interviewed by Ann Patchett.

I was especially curious to see how much of the book was fiction and how much was researched. I remember the book I, Varina in my high school library, but I hadn't remembered much of the history of this woman who played a secondary role in history. In this novel, Frazier brought together his title character and James, a grown African American man who had been raised alongside the Davis's own children, but who was separated from the family when the Davis's fled at the war's end.

Frazier explained that James is based on a real boy, but that no record survives of his life after separated from the Davis family. He just imagined a future for him, providing an effective structure for the novel. Piecing together his own memory and finding mention of himself in a book about the Davises sends him in search of Varina, now an older woman living in New York at what is evidently a hotel for "rest cure." His questions provide the avenue for flashbacks that tell the story of V, as she's called in the novel, before she met Jefferson Davis, still a grieving widower and throughout their not-always-happy marriage.

Because Frazier writes novels, not history, he deftly uses the historical fact to weave together a powerful story. As he admitted in the interview, he wasn't interested in writing about Civil War battles. Just as in Cold Mountain, the focus stays on the individual characters, providing plenty of rich details and dwelling in the grey areas.  The novel also has the advantage of Frazier's rich prose, engrossing dialogue, and description that readers are not tempted to skim.

And once again, he's omitted quotation marks.