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.


Monday, December 30, 2019

My 2019 Reading List

With just over a day left in the year, I decided to go ahead and post my reading list from this year. I'll post some more detailed commentary later, but I am already looking forward to comparing my list to others'.  

I always enjoy being reminded of a year of reading. Two Louise Penny books made the list because she published two close enough for me to read both. I hope she is busy writing the next one. I do see several poetry books included on this year's list, especially Nye and Kooser because of last year's and next year's Christian Scholars Conference. 

I also re-read some books that I already loved. My book club chose Daphne DuMaurier's classic Rebecca, which got me started reading all of her books back in junior high. It held up over time. I also read Varina by Charles Frazier again, the book club selection for the month I hosted. I also had a couple of books with Little Women connections, The Spring Girls, a modern retelling, and Ann Boyd Rioux deep dive into the book, the author, and all the spinoffs. Because I'd loved A Gentleman in Moscow, I selected the audiobook for a long road trip with my husband, now also hooked on audiobooks. I listened to a significant percentage of several others with him, but didn't add them to this list.

I also read Margaret Renkl's Late Migrations twice, in part because I'm reviewing it for L. A. Review, but also because I simply loved it. In fact, I gave more than one copy as a Christmas gift this year, and I recommended it to so many others. 

Already I have a long list of books I hope to read next, knowing that other books will muscle their way into the queue. 

Reading List 2019

Stuart Turton, The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle
Louise Penny, The Kingdom of the Blind
Kate Atkinson, Transcriptions
Heather Morris, The Tattooist of Auschwitz
Richard Grant, Dispatches from Pluto
Fannie Flagg, I Still Dream about  You
Tommy Orange, There, There
Delia Owens, Where the Crawdad Sings
Ann Boyd Rioux, Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Matters
Sonia Nazario, Enrique’s Journey
Emily Griffith, All We Ever Wanted
B. A. Paris, Bring Me Back
Susan Orlean, The Library Book
Patti Callahan, Becoming Mrs. Lewis
Lisa Genova, Every Note Played
Naomi Shihab Nye, Voices in the Air
---. You and Yours
---. Red Suitcase
---. Fuel
---. The Tiny Journalist
Tayari Jones, An American Marriage
Taylor Jenkins Reid, Daisy Jones and the Six
Amor Towles, A Gentleman In Moscow
Robert Dugoni, The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell
Louise Erdrich, Future Home of the Living God
Clyde Edgerton, Night Train
John Shors, Beneath a Marble Sky
Sandy Coomer, Available Light
Diane Setterfeld, Once upon a River
Marie Kondo, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying up
Anne Todd, The Spring Girls
Alan Bradley, The Golden Treasures of the Dead
Ron Seybold, Stealing Home
Andrew Sean Greer, The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells
Helen Ellis, Southern Lady Code
Katie Quinn, The Alice Network
Casey Cepp, Furious Hours
Melinda Gates, The Moment of Lift
Graeme Simsion, The Rosie Results
Fiona Davis, The Masterpiece
Tom Hanks, Uncommon Types
Margaret Renkl, Late Migrations
Ocean Vuong, On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous
David Brooks, The Second Mountain
Anne Youngson, Meet Me at the Museum
Allen Eskens, The Life We Bury
Daphne DuMaurier, Rebecca
Cathleen Schine, The Grammarians
Ann Patchett, The Dutch House
Colton Whitehead, The Nickel Boys
Adrian McKinty, The Chain
Louise Penny, A Better Man
Charles Frazier, Varina
Mary Laura Philpott, I Miss You When I Blink
Elizabeth Strout, Olive, Again
Tana French, In the Woods
Naomi Shihab Nye, The Tiny Journalist (re-read)
Margaret Renkl, Late Migrations (another re-read)
Ted Kooser, Flying at Night
Kevin Wilson, Nothing to See Here
Colm Tolbin, The Testament of Mary
Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give
Zadie Smith, Grand Union: Stories
Ted Kooser, Delights and Shadows
Patricia Harmon, The Reluctant Midwife
Matthew Dicks, Twenty-one Truths about Love
The Bible (McArthur’s read in a year)


Thursday, November 21, 2019

Elizabeth Strout's Olive, Again: Reproducing the Special Magic

When I first picked up Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout's novel's 2008 book of interwoven short stories that went on to win a Pulitzer Prize, I had never heard of the book. It just caught my attention. I not only enjoyed reading about Olive; I believe I know her. She reminds me so much of a former colleague who intimidated me before I was able to see past the crusty facade to the tender heart and the wicked sense of humor underneath.

This new book follows the successful pattern of the first: a series of short stories set in the same small town of Crosby, Maine, with road trips to nearby towns. Olive Kitteridge is the thread that ties the stories together, even though in some she appears only as a minor character. Two women in one story, for example, cross paths with her in an art gallery. Sometimes the characters have been students in her classroom before she retired.

In this collection, Olive's curious romance with Jack Kennison picks up from the first book, following the death of her first husband. Her son and his complicated family make more of an appearance in this novel, which covers a longer span of time than the first.

Some of the stories may make readers squirm a little. Sometimes Olive's quirky behavior makes me wish I could give her some tips on social skills. But in the end, I found her the same believable, sympathetic character who had grown on me the first go around. Olive faces old age, first in the friends she sees making their way to the nursing home she finds so distasteful. She has to deal with the realization that she no longer needs to drive--and Olive is not a woman to give up her independence easily.

I'm realistic enough to know Strout probably won't be able to give readers another book about Olive, but I'm glad I had the opportunity to eavesdrop on her life just a little longer. I'm eager to see which character Strout brings to life next.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Ann Patchett's The Dutch House: This Fall's Must Read

I was an Ann Patchett fan before I moved to Nashville--probably even before I realized she lived in Nashville. I first discovered her when I read Bel Canto, which remains a favorite. Since she partnered with Karen Hayes to open Parnassus Books, one of the best independent bookstores anywhere, she has kept busy not only writing her own books but championing those of other writers here in Nashville and elsewhere.

When I first meet the college freshmen I teach, I give my soapbox speech about balancing academics and the other aspects of life. Don't live in Nashville and never leave campus, I advise them. I suggest they discover all the freebies and good deals for college students. They need to visit the Frist Art Museum (frequently), Cheekwood Mansion and Botanical Gardens, the Country Music Hall of Fame, and the Ryman Auditorium. And they need to discover Parnassus Books, within an easy walking distance of campus (something I know, having attended Lipscomb when freshmen weren't allowed to have cars. I walked or biked to Green Hills before Green Hills was cool.)

Patchett's most recent novel The Dutch House lives up to the high expectations of her readers. Told by Danny, this is the story of two siblings brought up by their father in a grand and unusual house in the suburbs outside Philadelphia when their mother abandons the family. The story takes a Cinderella turn when their father remarries and then dies suddenly, leaving Danny and his sister Maeve without family or a home.

Whenever Danny returns as an adult to visit his sister, the two of them invariably find themselves parked across the street from their former home, still occupied by their stepmother. Over time, they grow more nostalgic over the shared time in the car than in the house.

I sometimes had to remind myself that Danny's voice was the creation of a female writer. Everything about his character was believable. The dynamics of his relationship with Maeve was genuine without being over-sentimentalized. I liked them both. The other characters in the story--the two sisters who kept the Dutch House, as well as Fluffy, Danny's baby nurse who lost her job for striking the boy with a spoon, were believable and endearing. Even the stepmother Andrea and Elna, their long-absent mother, are much more than one-dimensional stereotypes.

While conventional wisdom advises against judging a book by its cover, the illustration on this particular novel, a rendering by a Nashville artist of the painting of young Maeve described in the book is both beautiful and haunting. When I think of iconic book covers, I expect this one to join the list; I also think this novel will be on reading lists for years to come.


Friday, October 25, 2019

Tales of Second Wives: Rebecca and Varina

 With such a backlog of books waiting to be read, I am often reluctant to re-read anything, even books I loved. Sometimes, as recently for me, the motivation is external. When my book club decided to choose a classic as we prepared our 2019 reading list, we opted for Daphne DuMaurier's Rebecca, a book that had kept me on the D shelf in the fiction section of the Florence-Lauderdale Public Library back in junior high.

I loved the book so much that I read everything I could find by DuMaurier--Jamaica Inn, My Cousin Rachel, and a personal favorite, The House on the Strand.  I knew that Alfred Hitchcock had loved her works too, adapting this novel for the big screen, as
well as her short story "The Birds," which became one of Hitchcock's best-known film. (Who doesn't think of it whenever spying a flock of blackbirds?)

When we decided to read Rebecca, a first read for some members of the group, I wondered if it would hold up. I remembered so many vivid memories--the first glimpse of flames, appearing like the sunset on the wrong side of the sky, the opening line: Last night I dreamt I went to Manderly again. Every time I approach a majestic house at the end of a long drive, I recite them.

I'm still amused to recall that the narrator was never given a name other than Mrs. deWinter, one already used when she took it over. I still imagine the sight of Rebecca's signature in book dedications and household documents. I remember practicing writing that slanting R myself, even though I didn't have an R in my name.

A more recent re-reading experience brought me back to Charles Frazier's Varina, the fictionalized story of Jefferson Davis's wife. Long a fan of Frazier's writing, particularly his first novel Cold Mountain, I had selected Varina as our book club read when I hosted. Since only two of us are Southerners and several members have origins outside the United States, I was eager to lead a discussion that centered on the complicated history during and after the Civil War.

Frazier's novel, inspired by historical details of the wife of the only president of the Confederacy, took a minor character, a black boy taken in by the Davises and raised along side of their children. Pictures still remain of young Jimmy, and little is known after he was taken from the family upon their arrest after the war. Frazier took the liberties to imagine a grown-up Jimmy, having his own childhood memories reawakened upon reading a book mentioning his existence in the Davis household. He seeks out Varina, called V throughout the novel, and has her recount his life and her own.

My experience reading Frazier for a second time recalled the same experience with Cold Mountain. I read both novels straight through for the story, shortly after publication. A second reading made me more aware of Frazier's use of language and detail, his ability to explore the gray areas and the ambiguities.

Only upon reflection did I realize that both novels centered on the lives of second wives, living in the shadow of their husbands' first wives. Jefferson Davis had been married to Knoxie Taylor, whose father went on to serve as President of the United States. She died quickly of an illness shortly after their marriage and he only relinquished his mourning clothes in time to court Varina, many years his junior. If Frazier's details are accurate, he stopped by her grave with Varina on their honeymoon. In the novel, she speculates on his happy reunion with his first wife in the afterlife.

While the narrator of Rebecca spends much of her early marriage under the mistaken belief that her husband had adored Rebecca as much as everyone else did, only late in the story does she learn how wrong she was. On this second reading, I was particularly struck by her easy acceptance of how Rebecca died. Even Hitchcock had to make some revisions to the screenplay to minimize Max's culpability in his wife's death.

Now I'm happily moving on to my stack of new books, but I'm reminded that a second--or third or fourth--reading of a favorite book is seldom a waste of time.