Sunday, March 29, 2020

Reading While Sheltering in Place: Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

I usually wait until January 1 to write down the titles of the books I've read and recorded on my wall calendar. However, I wanted to take stock of the first quarter of this most unusual year.  Since time "sheltering in place" has placed me within easy reach of the unread books and bookstore and library links allow me to download ebooks and audiobooks, I've had the delightful dilemma of what to read next and what to recommend from those I have been able to read.

I finally picked up Kiley Reid's novel Such a Fun Age, after hearing her read at Parnassus shortly after the book debuted. The story follows Emira Tucker,  a 25-year-old young African American who hasn't made the transition to adulthood as successfully as her some of her friends have. She works part time as a sister for 3-year-old Briar, whose father is a newscaster in Philadephia and mother Alix has made a career on social media out of the art of letter-writing, just as she has re-invented her own life.

The book, which shifts between Emira and Alix's points of view, opens as Emira is asked to leave a party and take Briar out of the house following a disturbing incident of vandalism resulting. While Emira is with Briar in Whole Foods, a security guard accuses her of kidnapping the young girl, creating an incident another shopper records on his phone.

Reid narrates the aftermath, as Alix tries to make a start on the book she has a contract to write, as she begins to live vicariously through Emira, regularly sneaking peeks at her sitter's phone screen to catch snatches of texts with her friends and new boyfriend.  Reid maintains reader suspense with some unexpected turns, particularly in the world's most awkward Thanksgiving dinner, when Emira's fight home is delayed and Alix invites her to bring her new boyfriend to join them.

While the book obviously deals with racial issues, Reid does so without cliches or easy answers. Her characters are also fully fleshed out--not stereotypes or easy targets. Her protagonists have flaws, and even those that could be considered villains have redeeming qualities. What results is a page turner that will keep readers thinking (and locking their phones) for a long time.


Saturday, March 14, 2020

Books for Times Like These: Not for the Faint of Heart

As the news of the Coronavirus has literally gone viral, I have noticed an odd spectrum of factual, medical, hysterical, and--yes--humorous information coming across the World Wide Web.  I confess that I get a kick out of some of the cartoons and memes poking fun, for example, at the way shoppers have stripped the shelves of toilet paper and Amazon has hiked prices of hand sanitizer. I remember right after the first space shuttle explosion reading a psychological explanation of why we joke about serious news item. Rather than being a sign of our callousness, it represents more of a coping strategy.

In that vein, then, I shared the Facebook warning that books might be in short supply, encouraging people to rush to their local new and used book shops to stock up on reading material in case this "social distancing" lasts long. Someone suggested we treat the experience the way we do snow days: use common sense and stay inside. I always loved the part of snow days that left me at home with time on my hands to read. (I also have inexplicable urge to bake bread. But I digress.) Part of my justification for stockpiling books is for times like these when I might be caught at home--with no March Madness or Masters golf tournament to distract.

One book in my "to read" stack was Karen Thompson Walker's The Dreamers. I heard Walker at the Southern Festival of Books and, intrigued,  picked up a copy. Without offering any spoilers, I will tell you that the story begins on a college campus when  a coed comes back to the dorm after a late night of partying, falls asleep, and then doesn't wake up. The inexplicable "sleeping sickness" begins to spread, beginning in the dorm where quarantine is put into effect at an attempt at containment. The similarities between their story and the one unfolding here is uncanny.

Walker is not a newcomer to these kinds of scenarios. In her previous book, The Age of Miracles, the earth's rotation gradually slows, throwing off the clock, the calendar, the seasons. Her tendency to explore the "what ifs" makes for a fascinating read.

Having taught British literature for much of my career, I've always been fascinated with tales of the Black Death that took such a human toll across Europe during the Middle Ages.  Two novels published closed to the same time dealing with that plague are Geraldine Brooks' Year of Wonders, which focuses on one small town and attempts at containment, and the second novel in Ken Follett's trilogy that began with Pillars of the Earth. In World Without End, Follett applies his narrative skills in a sweeping epic set in the same fictional cathedral town, this time as the Black Death takes its toll.

I must include a YA novel, the debut work by Alison Kemper, my teaching colleague in North Carolina.  Her novel Donna of the Dead details a zombie outbreak that opens with the protagonist on --of all places--a cruise ship.  Kemper's tongue-in-cheek humor, rare in this genre, made it a fun read.

I know some people would prefer some escapist literature--and there's plenty of that to go around. Even Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, is blogging encouraging words from her safe place.  If, however, you prefer to look into the mouth of the lion, to explore pandemics in a fictional setting, here are a few from which to choose. Try to buy them from a brick and mortar bookstore while you can. They're going to need your business.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Joshilyn Jackson's Southern Voice: Almost Sisters

After painfully making my way through a couple of audiobooks set in the South but read by decidedly unSouthern narrators, what a breath of fresh air to listen to Joshilyn Jackson reading her own novel The Almost Sisters. I've been reading her books since Gods in Alabama, and she always weaves a great story line with quirky but believable characters.

This novel opens with Leia Birch Briggs, a comic book artist and self-proclaimed nerd, discovering that a one-night stand with a man dressed as Batman (or is it The Batman to purists?) at a comic book convention has left her pregnant with a child she decides she will raise on her own.

She delays telling her family, however, finally deciding she'll first tell her beloved grandmother Birchie, who still lives in the small Southern town of her family origin. She gets the news that her grandmother has been keeping a secret, with the help of her best friend Wattie, the daughter of the family's former black maid: she has a form of dementia known as Lewy bodies. (Yes, it's a real illness.) The dementia revealed itself at a church social when Wattie wasn't able to keep Birchie from spilling town secrets, particularly the extramarital shenanigans going on in the choir room.

Meanwhile, Leia learns that her half-sister--always the perfect one--is in the middle of a marital crisis, and Rachel's young teenage daughter witnessed the blow-up. To get her out of the middle of the crisis, Leia takes her along to Birchville.

As she tries to make the hard decisions about moving her grandmother to a safer place, Leia discovers that the secrets Birchie let fly at the Baptist Church were nothing compared to her own secrets she's been keeping--or hiding--in the family home.

Jackson uses the experiences of many of the characters to explore the impact of a father's absence--either by choice, loss, or pure ignorance. Leia's father died when she was too young to remember him; her stepfather was a loving parent, but early on, Rachel prevented Leia from calling him Dad. Rachel's teen daughter connects with two local teen boys whose mother's infidelity was exposed, and Birchie's father issues emerge through the course of the story, as Leia has to make decisions about how much--or if--to tell Batman she is carrying his baby.

Jackson builds a story that is at once a romance, a coming-of-age story, a family saga, and a comedy. No, she doesn't relegate Batman to his early cameo appearance as the story opens--and he is anything but the stereotype readers might expect--unless they know Joshilyn Jackson's fiction, that is. While I know the story would read just as authentically Southern off the pages of the book, hearing it narrated by the author is an audio treat.

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

I've taken awhile to write a review of this novel, hoping the hubbub would die down and people would read it first without being influenced by the controversy surrounding the book. Everyone who had read the advanced copies of the novel commented on how powerful yet painful the book is, so I was eager to hear Cummings read at Parnassus Books the week the book was launched, and I was just as eager to read her novel.

Jeanine Cummins pulls in readers from the opening pages, when her two main characters, a young boy Luca and his mother Lydia in Acapulco are able to hide and survive a mass killing of 16 members of their family at a birthday cookout, obviously the work of members of a notorious drug cartel. The hit is undoubtedly a response to an expose of the particular cartel, Los Jardinieres, written by Lydia's journalist husband Sebastian.

Immediately after their escape, aware that many of the local law enforcement officers are in the pocket of the cartel, Lydia takes Luca and flees toward the U. S. border. What follows is a heart-pounding, gut-wrenching, bone-weary journey, as Lydia and Luca join others making that same route. Along the way, they are shadowed by a young man bearing a tattoo marking him as a member of the Los Jardinieres who has killed. While he tells her he is leaving to escape that life, his tendency to keep appearing leaves her more than wary.

Two of the most sympathetic characters they encounter are young sisters, one of them strikingly beautiful, who have fled to escape a controlling relationship in which the elder sister became entangled that now threatens to control the younger sister too. They are able to show the mother and son the ropes as they slip onto trains bound north, and they become more like family to Luca and Lydia.

Ignoring the inflammatory buzz about the book, I will say that American Dirt has the power to engage readers with neutral or negative attitudes about immigrants heading to the border. Certainly she shows the characters they encounter as individuals as varied as any one would expect to meet under such circumstances. In some towns, they find themselves fed and cared for, and in others, they have to lie low, avoiding any attention that might connect them to Javier, the cartel leader.

I'm wondering if Atticus Finch would fault Cummins with attempting, after much research, to portray as human beings characters that are often wrongly stereotyped.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Markus Zusak's I Am the Messenger

When an author scores a home run, writing a major novel that makes school reading lists and book clubs too, the pressure to follow the success must be intimidating. Markus Zusak's The Book Thief was that kind of a publishing success, read by several generations of readers. His choice of Death as his narrator--a benevolent narrator at that--worked on more than a gimmicky level.

The story line was captivating and the creativity with which he developed it made it one of my favorite books.

I Am the Messenger is not Zusak's first novel after The Book Thief, but it came to my attention on Book Page, where I read that it was the one book a particular bookseller recommended to everyone this past year.

The novel opens during a poorly executed bank robbery, where the narrator Ed Kennedy and his three best friends are introduced--Marv, Ritchie, and Audrey. A nineteen-year-old cab driver (who had to lie about his age to get the job) considers himself something of a loser, especially in comparison to his siblings. He often spells out the inventory of his shortcomings. Ed spends his free time in card games with his friends who aren't exactly setting the world on fire either.

Then Ed gets a mysterious playing card in the mail with three addresses written on it but no directions. He has to figure out just what is expected of him. The strange assignments take him through sometimes painful, sometimes hilarious, sometimes heartwarming interactions, usually with complete strangers.

One of the best characters is his coffee-drinking, smelly old dog he has named The Doorman. While at times readers may wonder if there might be a little touch of the supernatural, the book remains believable. The ensemble of secondary characters is handled deftly by the author as well.

In one episode he helps a priest in a rough neighborhood to increase church attendance, in part by offering free beer at an after-church social.

Never during my reading did I find myself comparing the novel to The Book Thief. I found myself so caught up in this story that I didn't have to keep looking back down the library shelf.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

2019 Highlights: Reading to Be Discomfited

A few years ago, I read about some research on the "Theory of Mind"--understanding the mental states of others--particularly the positive benefits of reading literary fiction, in comparison to reading nonfiction, popular fiction, or nothing at all. One doesn't have to deal in psychological research to realize how such reading can increase one's ability to empathize with others, as well as to make inferences.

I have often pointed out to my students that they may have the opportunity to travel to remote parts of the world, but they can never travel far into the past or the future--except in a book.

While my own reading choices vary widely, I sometimes identify patterns. This year in particular brought me some fiction that challenged me to empathize, even when doing so felt uncomfortable. One of the powerful books I read this year was The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead.  I had heard him at a reading in Nashville when Underground Railroad was first published and added that to my reading list. His latest novel The Nickel Boys follows the story of a young black man whose life takes a turn for the worst because of horrific timing and coincidence. Elwood, a high school student with a hunger to learn, had the opportunity to take college classes, but the driver with whom he hitches a ride is stopped and found to have contraband in the car. Assumed guilty as well, Elwood is taken to Nickel Academy, a segregated school for boys, where the adults in charge cruelly overstep their bounds.

Whitehead opens his story in the present after the school's closing when unmarked graves are discovered--based on the actual case of the Florida School for Boys, where just such a discovery was made in 2011. He then moves back in time to explore Elwood's story and that of some of the other boys he encounters during his time at Nickel.

I also made time to read Angie Thomas' YA novel The Hate U Give, a heartbreaking story told through the eyes of Starr Carter, a young black girl living in a poor neighborhood but attending an exclusive private school. When shots are fired at a party she's attending with her friend Kenya (with whom she shares a half brother), she takes a ride home with Khalil, a friend from childhood. When he is pulled over by a policeman, the stop goes very wrong, leaving Starr struggling to make sense of the two worlds whose line she straddles.

Thomas doesn't tie up loose ends in a pretty bow. In fact, the verdict is reminiscent of the one following the court room scene in To Kill a Mockingbird, but it results in riots that nearly destroys the neighborhood of the angry rioters. Thomas depicts her characters as many-layered. Starr's father spent time behind bars but has put gang life behind him and runs a successful local business. Her Uncle Carlos, who raised her while her father was imprisoned, is a policeman who must deal with the repercussions of antagonism toward law enforcement in general.

Right on the heels of The Hate You Give, I read Zadie Smith's most recent publication, Grand Union, a collection of short fiction. Her settings shift between Europe and the United States, and many of her characters not only deal with preconceptions based on skin color but nationality as well.

While most of us need more than two or three works of fiction to see the world through the eyes of others unlike us, reading is a good way to start walking in others' shoes.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Matthew Dick's Twenty-One Truths about Love: A Clever Twist with Lists

If I tried to make a list of the factors that lead to my selecting one book over another to buy or to read, I couldn't do it. I do know that when I visited Parnassus Books, Nashville's excellent independent bookstore, right after Christmas, Twenty-One Truths about Love by Matthew Dicks had my attention even though I saw plenty of other books on my "What to Read Next"--and  I have plenty of perfectly good books waiting, unread, on my shelves at home.

In this case, my gut instinct was right. More than just a clever gimmick, the book is told told entirely through lists. These lists are compiled by Daniel, who quit teaching English (at the school where he met his wife in a faculty meeting) to open a bookstore. This is, admittedly, the dream job of almost everyone I know who has taught (or teaches) English, so the book also serves as a warning.

Through his lists, readers discover that the bookstore is losing money, something Daniel hasn't summoned the nerve to tell his wife Jill. In list fashion, he introduces all his characters--his best and worst employees, his family, even the elderly gentleman he meets at Bingo games who becomes his best friend.

Having spent plenty of time in the classroom, I especially appreciated some of the school-related humor: Jill's text messages from faculty meetings, the baby names they reject because of former students with those names. Any teacher understands.

Some of the most poignant details have to do with Jill's deceased first husband Peter, a presence in their marriage with which Daniel has to cope.

After speeding through this book, my booklist just got longer:

1. Anything else written by Matthew Dicks.