Wednesday, September 30, 2020

M. O. Walsh: The Big Door Prize

 I had already read M. O. Walsh's earlier novel My Sunshine Away before he appeared on the virtual reveal party for the Southern Festival of Books. When he talked about his new novel The Big Door Prize, he had me at John Prine. For the unfamiliar, the title of the book is a line from "In Spite of Ourselves," Prine's duet with Iris DeMent. Several of the chapter titles are song titles, and I caught so many other references. (There's a casual mention that a local couple, Donald and Lydia, are divorcing.)

Yes, you can enjoy the novel without knowing anything about the late great singer-songwriter (although I'd recommend remediation if that's the case.) The novel follows Douglas Hubbard, a high school teacher, whose "midlife crisis" reaction to turning forty is to sign up for trombone lessons.

His wife Cherilyn is keeping busy painting birdhouses to sell at the centennial celebration of their small town, Deerfield, Louisiana. But the appearance of a DNAMIX machine at the local grocery shakes up everyone, including this generally happy couple. This machine, which appeared without explanation, for the price of $2 and a cheek swab will reveal anyone's destiny. The problem is that the read-outs not only defy logic, but also send many of the locals on a widely divergent path.

When Cherilyn grows weepy, attributed to her destiny card, Douglas resists the urge at first to see for himself what his DNAMIX reading might be. What will it mean, after all, if his happy marriage is a fluke that put both of them on a path that leads them away from their destiny? 

In a parallel story line, one of Hubbard's students who recently lost his brother in a wreck after a party finds his brother's former girlfriend pursuing him. Likewise, the school principal is taking early retirement after reading her destiny card.

The novel is less about the supernatural that about how people choose their own destinies and make their own happiness. Walsh takes readers along for a fun ride--one that has its own playlist. His session at the Southern Festival of Books is sure to be fun.


Sunday, September 27, 2020

 “Write what you know” is a bit of writing advice that Ron Rash follows consistently. Whether in modern day or during the Civil War, his novels, stories, and poetry are set in the mountains and foothills of Western North Carolina. 

In his latest book, In the Valley, a collection of short stories and a novella, he opens with a story set near the scene of the Shelton Laurel incident, where tensions between Unionist and Confederate sympathizers came to a head with the killing of thirteen Union sympathizers, one a young boy. Rash explored these dark pages of history in his novel The World Made Straight and returns to the rural landscape in “Neighbors.” In this story, a widow is confronted by soldiers purportedly hunting for men loyal to the union, while taking scarce food and livestock. Dependent on neighbors for survival, Rebecca, the protagonist, must keep her late husband’s loyalties secret to avoid jeopardizing herself and her young children.


“When All the Stars Fell,” set in more modern hard times, shows a son in a caught in a dilemma between his father’s unswerving integrity and his own need to get even with what he sees as just one more wealthy, powerful man taking advantage of their family construction business because he can.


Several of Rash’s protagonists are measuring others’ sorrows and losses against their own. The narrator of “Sad Man in the Sky” a helicopter pilot taking tourists to view the changing colors in the mountains, bends the rules to let a broken man rain down gifts on his former stepchildren, unearthing memories of his own service in the Vietnam War. 


Jake, a Brevard art professor, in “L’homme Blessé,” is still reeling from his young wife’s sudden death a year earlier when Shelby Tate, a former student, asks to show him the primitive paintings with which her late great uncle covered his walls after returning from the service in Europe in the mid-40s.When  Jake recognizes the strange animal images from photographs of the Pech Merle cave in France, he goes with Shelby to visit an old man who had served in the war with her uncle to solve the mystery.


In small towns just off I-40, Rash peoples his stories with the broken, the lawless, people caught between good and evil, between helping others or looking the other way. While his stories all have a darkness, they give a glimmer, sometimes just a hint of light. Often the stories end without clear resolution, letting readers imagine what the characters might find just down around the corner.


Opening the pages of In the Valley, Rash’s fans have to fight the temptation to turn to the end of the book to reach the title novella “In the Valley, “a shorter sequel to Serena, his novel from 2008. The title character Serena Pemberton returns to the timberlands she has left for clearing as the deadline for the project completion nears. Many of the characters from the novel—the ones that survived—return for this narrative. In this tale, less a retelling of Macbeth this time, but no less Shakespearean, Rash’s timbermen are forced to work at a deadly pace, with too little food or rest. Serena’s henchman Galloway and his blind mother, with her evil gift of second sense, doom any who oppose Serena or try to escape her reach. Aware that Rachel Harmon and her child Jacob, the illegitimate son of Serena’s late husband, may not have put enough distance between themselves and the amoral timber baroness, Ross, a minor character in the early novel, sees his options narrow.


While the novella, like the earlier novel, lacks stereotypical heroes and antagonists, Rash leaves no question about the true villains and victims in his story.

One of the perennial favorites at Nashville's Southern Festival of Books, Rash will appear in this year's virtual festival.



Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Sarah Clarkson's Book Girl: A Rich Resource for Readers

Mike, one of the members of my book chat group, always expresses his concern that what he reads may not appeal to the rest of us. He's usually wrong about that. One of the best parts of having a book group that has a mix of gender and ages is the variety of reading to which we are exposed.

Recently he sent me a link to an interview with Sarah Clarkson on the Word on Fire Institute website entitled "Books, Evangelization, and the Transformative Power of the Reading Life." Clarkson studied at Oxford University after what she calls her twelve-year gap year. She had always dreamed of studying there in part because of her love of C. S. Lewis and Tolkien. One cannot underestimate the influence of her reading family either.

In the interview she mentioned her book Book Girl, in which she describes her own reading journey, sharing list after list of book recommendations for different circumstances. Her chapter titles include "Books Can Foster Community" and "Books Can Impart Hope." I couldn't wait to start reading it for myself. Her research on reading confirms my own beliefs about the power of literature to shape the mind and the heart.

Her recommendations range from works by Lewis and Tolkien, of course, to classics and childhood favorites--the Anne of Avonlea series by Montgomery, books by George Eliot, Wendell Berry, Marilynne Robinson and more. She also includes annotated lists of books more overtly spiritual or theological.

As a general rule, I love a book list that affords me the opportunity to check off all I have read. Clarkson, however, introduced me to authors I hadn't read yet and to new books by authors with whom I was at least familiar.

She also reminded me of books I've read long ago and need to read again, including Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country, a past favorite I recently recommended to a friend to read with his wife and her 97-year-old father.

In Book Girl, Clarkson reminds me to slow down and read thoughtfully and contemplatively. I also become more aware of the need to be selective in my reading, since I can't possibly get to all the books I'd like to read.

I also wish every young family could recognize the value in modeling and encouraging a reading life for children. After all, Clarkson's mother read to her in utero, and during the writing of the book, Sarah confessed to reading to her soon-to-be born daughter, a little book girl of her own.

One word of advice: Don't take the title too literally. There is so much food for thought for men as well as women of all ages. I expect to keep my copy close enough for reference the next time I'm choosing a book to read.

Monday, August 17, 2020

The Sound of Summer Running

Living  life on a school calendar, I have always been aware of how fast the summer goes, speeding faster as it reaches the end. I always play Alison Brown's beautiful instrumental piece "The Sound of Summer Running" in classes that first week. Even without words, it evokes that feeling. This year, I'll have to add John Prine's "Summer's End" from his last CD.

As I face creating my syllabus and reading for my classes, I realize that my time to read for pleasure will be more limited than it has been since mid-March. For that reason, I select carefully. Recently, I returned to an old favorite, perfect for summer reading, Ran Bradbury's Dandelion Wine. Written in little vignettes, the book gives readers the perspectives of brothers Tom and Douglas Spaulding, as they consider some complex matters: I am alive. Things change. People leave. We all die eventually.

Living right beside their grandparents, with a great grandmother living as well, the boys learn from others' experiences as well. As they help their grandfather bottling dandelion wine, they imagine the summer captured inside that amber liquid.

They live in that world when neighbors all knew each other, but they still faced fears and sadness.
Part reminiscence, part magic realism, the book has touched many of the students I've taught. One told me, years ago, he planned to read it every summer for the rest of his life. I hope he followed through.

Some years, I collected old bottles and corks, and we placed memories inside to set on the classroom shelves. As far as we are removed from Green Town in 1928, at the core, what remains is true.

As a side note, the title of Brown's song, "The Sound of Summer Running" is a Ray Bradbury title as well. Both, perhaps, give a nod to Andrew Marvell's "time's winged chariot."

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

More Summer Reading: In the Full Light of the Sun by Clare Clark

Clare Clark's novel In the Full Light of the Sun is set in 1920s Berlin, when the German people are suffering from the after effects of WWI--skyrocketing inflation and food shortage--and Hitler and his Nazi party are rising to power. The political tension at first serves in the background of this story, but increases in intensity throughout the narrative.

I am drawn to works of fiction that deal with the art world, particularly the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. I loved the novel Season of Migration by Nellie Hermann, which accounted for Van Gogh's time aspiring to a career in the ministry, serving in a coal-mining town. I also encourage (beg) anyone who hasn't seen the amazing film Loving Vincent to do so--preferably on the big screen.

Van Gogh is not a character in this novel; his paintings, however, take center stage (or lots of museum wall space). Clark pulls together a number of characters. The story opens with Julius, a wealthy art critic, whose wife leaves him, taking their son and his prized Van Gogh painting. The blank spot on the wall torments him. He develops a professional relationship bordering on friendship with Rachmann, an art collector who opens a gallery with his brother. They manage to collect before unknown Van Gogh painting from a mysterious source in Spain. Rounding out the narrative is Emmeline, an art student in Berlin despite her mother's wishes whose path crosses with both men.

bBased on actual events, this one of many intriguing art stories that come out of Europe around the time of the second world war, when forgery was a crime on par with the stolen art of this time period.  Clark captures the human dynamics when money and egos are at stake and greed, deception, and attraction intersect.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

In Celebration of Summer Reading: The Vinyl Detective--Written in Dead Wax


Sometimes my reading overlaps with my other interests. Such was the case as I read Andrew Cartmel's first book in his The Vinyl Detective series: Written in Dead Wax. The "vinyl detective" is a young British record collector who specializes in jazz music. He scours charity shops and jumble sales for rare finds, which he resells to pay the rent, hoping eventually to improve his heating system.

A striking young woman shows up at his door with an assignment to find a particularly rare LP, the 14th and last from an obscure label.  She joins him on the search, spending more and more time in his flat as well, charming him and his pair of cats.

Evidence indicates a mysterious collectors' vinyl is appearing around town, but as he and Nevada, his charming sidekick, search for the album in question, a pair they call the Aryan Twins, seem to be just a step ahead of them or right on their trail. His best friend, with a tendency to fall down his own stairs, becomes a casualty.

In the second part of the novel, after he achieves what seems like success, he meets a young American woman whose grandmother sang on the record in the quest. She invites him along for further intrigue.

Much of the story is a little incredible (in the literal sense). A number of murders don't seem to draw much attention or else the police aren't making the connections. Still, the quirky characters, the specificity of the music details, and the twists and turns of the story all make for a fun read--just the kind summer is meant to include.


Monday, August 10, 2020

In Celebration of Summer Reading: Louise Erdrich's The Night Watchman


In some ways, I've lost track of time since the Covid-19 quarantine began in March. As spring gave way to summer--and it's always easy to tell the difference in Middle Tennessee--I have been able to read more and more without a trace of guilt. Summers are made for reading.

Never at a loss for a book to read, I still find myself moving back and forth between the unread books on my shelf and the ones I have popping up from my library holds. I am even revisiting Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury right now, a perfect summer book if ever there was one.

Over the weekend, I read Louise Erdrich's latest novel The Night Watchman, set in the 1950s when a bill was proposed in Washington to renege on the agreements made with Native American tribes. Thomas, the title character, works night shift as a security guard in a jewel bearing plant, sleeping maybe 12 hours a week and obsessively reading, writing letters, and gathering support for a trip to Washington to address Congress on behalf of the inhabitants of the Turtle Mountain reservation.

His niece Patrice, whom most people call Pixie--to her dismay--works at the plant to help provide support for her mother and brother, since her dad, a violent alcoholic, has left town. They haven't heard from her sister Vera, who moved to the Cities. Their dreams and visions, however, suggest she is alive but in danger, so Patrice takes a train trip to search for her.

Erdrich peoples all her novels and stories with interrelated characters, including Barnes, the white teacher who is attracted to Patrice, a pair of Mormon elders trying to make inroads with the people they call Lamanites, and the families of the reservation who practice Catholicism without abandoning their own spiritual ways and mysticism. 

The prologue and epilogue reveal that the story is based on experiences of Erdrich's own family, pointing me to a rabbit trail of research I am bound to follow.